Author: Claude Chabot PM
Dirk takes a vacation without his fiance and discovers a world he never knew existed outside or within. Note: some themes and characters are suitable only for mature teens and adults.Rated: Fiction M - English - Humor/Adventure - Words: 7,985 - Favs: 1 - Published: 07-27-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2937069
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
In the morning Dirk rose especially early in order not to miss the ferry to Africa. He was afraid that he would oversleep and then miss the boat, and being the only boat that week and his vacation so carefully planned, he could allow absolutely no chance of having it sail away without him.
Walking down the cobbled streets, he turned the corner into the port. Tunisian men were milling about, their narrow shoulders weighed down with enormous boxes and parcels holding the bittersweet fruit of their working exile in Western Europe. Chatting, drinking sweetened thé du menthe in small steaming cups, they showed one another their gifts for their families at home.
He went up to a group of officers of the Italian ferry line and asked in his halting, phrase- book Italian where a passenger with a reserved ticket was to board. The officer pointed to the long gray line of men with their small refrigerators and TVs and indicated with his hand where it slowly wound its way to the gangplank. He was horrified that he had to join the line with these people, but he dragged his suitcase to its end and waited anyway.
The masses inched lugubriously towards the gangplank. He hoped that once on board, even if they departed an hour later, he would still be able to arrive in Tunis in daylight and find an hotel. "That's right," he thought to himself less nervously, "everything will be fine." He would still eat lunch as planned. He would sun himself. He would nap. He thought himself a brave Wanderer, a courageous modern nomad overcoming all obstacles to reach his destination. He felt akin to those Berbers he had read about in his tour book living in the mountains in all these North African countries: hardy, resistant to adversity, adaptable. He imagined himself a latter day Lawrence of Arabia safely buckled in his tour bus, gamely crossing the Sahara.
Dirk was to have vacationed with his girlfriend Didi. They had almost booked two weeks at the Club Med in Cancun when they had a bitter fight about marriage and children. He had been furious. It happened at the time that his travel agent had come across a tour for North Africa, much cheaper than Club Med. Dirk had impulsively bought a plane ticket, a ferry reservation and the 10-day/9-night tour of Tunisia and the Island of the Lotus-Eaters ("sun kissed beaches, turquoise water, will have you lingering happily, helplessly…"). Even after he had patched things up with Didi, he had told her that they should vacation separately this year as they had the rest of their lives to spend together (there was a heavy penalty for alteration or cancellation of the tour). Didi reluctantly and spiritlessly agreed. She had even driven him to the airport. Strangely enough he did not feel guilty or sad and although he tried to hide it from himself, he had despised her sad-eyed farewell.
His thoughts wee interrupted when he noticed a commotion at the avenue passing by the dock. A group of young Tunisian men were moving towards the line, but it was clear that they were encircling something or someone. He could finally make out at the center of this group the salt and peppered head of a tall woman of about fifty years, clad in white flowing skirts and blouses with leather sandals and oversized horned-rim sunglasses. Her face was weathered, but she had an ingenuous laugh which bubbled out of her.
"California," he thought to himself, noting her tanned leathery hide peculiar to those who spend too much time in the sun in that arid state.
As her party attempted to enter the line it created a shocking commotion. Screams, shouts, and threats cut the air and a fistfight broke out.
"I should have gone to Cancun," he thought, his courage shrinking as he edged away from the violence.
Some of the liner's agents and the local carabinieri were moving in. The salt and pepper haired woman emerged from the commotion unruffled, dragging behind her an enormous Gucci suitcase. She walked directly to Dirk and said, "Hi. I noticed your guidebook. Where do you hail from?"
"Well hello! Good to meet you! I'm from New York," he sputtered out, surprised, "I haven't seen another American in days, and I didn't think I'd find one here of all places. You must have excellent eyes to notice my guidebook from a distance like that, especially since you were practically in the middle of that fight over there."
"I seem to have been the cause of the little ruckus," she murmured vacantly. He watched as an ambulance arrived and carried off two men who looked like they had really been badly hurt.
"A 'little ruckus'?"
"Oh sure. They have their feuds and their intrigues and sometimes they get rough, but it's nothing. They're my boys; they'll live."
"My God, I hope so."
"Well, I don't seen any reason for making a big fuss over it," she practically yelled, "after all, we did have a spot saved for us on line. We did have right to be there you know. It wasn't the people directly in front or back of us who minded either, it was some hothead," at this point she turned around, directed her attention to a point on line and shouted, "it was some hothead down the line who had to stick his big nose into something that wasn't any of his business!"
Suddenly, she swung around, "Do you live in Manhattan big boy?" she asked.
"Oh no, Scarsdale. I grew up there and I moved back after college. But I work in the city for a direct marketing company. Futterman. Dirk Futterman," he said, extending his hand. He fixed her with a stare that he used in business which he thought made him seem powerful and unyielding but instead made him appear glassy-eyed and a trifle mad. Consequently, she took his hand warily, lightly. "By the way," he added, "I don't believe I caught your name?"
"You didn't catch it because I didn't tell you, but now that you ask it's Blanche Hudson. I know it was the Joan Crawford character in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.' I can't tell you what a pain it is to have some goddamned Hollywood movie appropriate you name, and then you have to walk around on eggshells for the rest of your goddamned life apologizing for it. I had just opened my gallery, too. I have a primitive art glallery in Laguna Beach, you know, near L.A. I had just opened it when that movie came out. And what do you think my gallery's name was? Well, what else? 'The Blanche Hudson Gallery.' It cost me a fortune to have the sign repainted. And I still get wise flit waiters who make a fuss over my name when I pay with plastic. Honestly, when is this line going to move?"
Dirk wondered what a flit was.
"Look, it was good to meet you Dick…"
"Right. I have to go join my boys. Let's talk on board and have lunch together. You traveling with anyone?"
"Then let's lunch. You can eat on this barge can't you?" He nodded. "I thought so. Let's do that and talk, okay?"
"Right – sure – later," he answered, astonished and a little relieved that she had turned around and left so suddenly. It began to rain lightly.
He was finally able to board a half-hour later and without wasting too much time on deck he went directly inside to attempt to find his seat. Before turning to do so he spotted Blanche in the drizzle waving to him. He thought it funny that she should be so outgoing and yet so hostile at the same time, but not being one to consider the motivations of people on this trip beyond his safety and the safety of the wallet, he did not give it a great deal of thought. He went inside tightly clutching his ticket.
None of the numbers posted near the seating areas corresponded to his, so he descended a flight of steps to a lower level. On this floor in the walkway he discovered to his astonishment what seemed like a Bedouin encampment. The Tunisians were everywhere: some of them had unrolled their rugs and were lounging on them with their shoes off. Some were changing their clothes while others were preparing tea with little burners. Not finding his seat number he climbed to the top deck dragging his suitcase after him, thump, thumping up the stairwell.
Much to Dirk's surprise each floor seemed to have the same mix of Tunisians and Europeans. He swung open one of the double doors and stood there in astonishment. It was the same thing all over again. People were changing clothes, playing loud music, smoking, eating and making tea. Some of them had their shoes off and were resting their feel against the wall.
He finally located his seat. A little girl and boy were asleep on his chair. A radiant young woman in the seat next to them with a small half-moon scar on one cheek smiled at him from under her chador. He noticed that she wore Nike running shoes. He showed her his ticket number in silence. She shrugged her shoulders and was about to rouse the children when Dirk put his finger over his lips. She smiled and offered him a cup of tea she had been brewing at her side. He shook his head. Excusing himself, he walked back into the corridor wondering what he should do. He had come to realize that having a ticket did not entitle him to any special privileges. It was dirty, smoky, and unpleasant in the seating area. At least he'd have refreshing sea breezes if he stayed on the deck outside.
The officer whom he'd spoken to outside came up to him and seeming to comprehend his dilemma, led him by the arm to a small seating area, this one filled with thirty or so middle-aged Greek couples chatting quietly. Dirk could tell they were Greek because of the funny alphabet on the label of the breath mints they used. "You have only second class ticket, and this is special seating room for first class cabin passengers, but there is space," he whispered, "you stay here. Be good, be quiet. Okay boy?" Dirk smiled. The officer smiled. He patted Dirk on the back, the way a doctor might encourage a patient on the first day in the asylum.
The room was quiet except for the soft chatter of the tour. The women carried sensible handbags made of dark leather. Several of them smiled at him in a tentative, protective fashion. He stowed his suitcase on a luggage rack on the wall and wondered what he should do.
He walked back to the swinging doors, pushed them open and was again confronted with the mayhem that he temporarily had forgotten existed. It amazed him.
"It really is like a Bedouin encampment," he thought, although he really had no idea what a Bedouin encampment looked like. People were doing all the things one does at home except make love. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he might even encounter a couple doing this, but his anxiety was unfounded. Seeking to explore, he turned around and pushed through the doors that led him to the first class cabins; this hallway was quiet, orderly and empty. He found the bathrooms and peeked in. An officer was poised before a urinal and he smiled and tipped his hat with his one free hand. Everything inside was clean and precisely arranged. Dirk stepped out and walked back to take his stroll. Later he passed the same officer from the bathroom, who smiled at him cordially in the hallway. He felt serene and at ease after this: he liked friendly, helpful people and the orderliness of his sector left him feeling secure.
He wandered to the outside deck and thought of the three free days he was to spend in Tunis before he joined the tour group that would journey to the Island of the Lotus Eaters. The accommodations in the brochure had the clean, modern look of a good Holiday Inn and this alone would have convinced him to go. He loved motels, even they were in North Africa.
He sighed and wondered why they hadn't left yet when he heard a voice come from behind him, "Howdy bub." Blanche grabbed his hand and dragged him all the way down to her seat on the level below. Her Tunisian friends were sitting or crouched around her chair. "Mi casa es su casa," she said smiling broadly.
Dirk stared at the Tunisians and they stared back.
"Well, it's time you met the boys. This is Mehmet, Khalid, Mohammed and Carlos," she said. The Tunisians nodded their heads politely.
"He had a Spanish mother. Carlos is a hairdresser in the Hotel Africa. He's going to make me beautiful when we get to Tunisia."
"The Hotel Africa?"
"Boys, this is Dick from New York."
"Dirk," he corrected her.
"Dirk, Dick, Donald, what's important is that we all have a good time." The Tunisians smiled.
There was a moment of silence. The Tunisians turned their attentions back to Blanche. Carlos leaned into her especially closely and she gave him a sweet smile, "Carlos, you have such beautiful eyes." He smiled back at her and fiddled with her hair, and then she added seductively, "My husband would rip off your limbs if he saw you touching me." He continued smiling and she turned to Dirk, shrugging her shoulders, "They don't understand English very well, do they? It's wonderful."
"Then how do you communicate?"
"I know a few words in Spanish for Carlos. They're very effective. I also know a little French, but not much. To fill in the gaps, I have this wonderful phrase book, 'See It and Say It in Arabic.' In fact, I think I'll use it right now. I'd like to take a stroll with you and get away from the boys awhile."
They promenaded on deck with Blanche towering over Dirk. They saw that the gangplank had been hoisted up, much to their satisfaction, and smoke issued copiously from the smokestack. Everything indicated an imminent departure and had for the past half-hour. When asked, one of the stewards responded that they would be moving momentarily.
Blanche and Dirk went inside to inspect the dining room whose glass doors revealed waiters laying the tables and carrying plates of Vitello Tonnato, vegetables in aspic, and other invitations to gluttony to the buffet. They scrutinized the menu. The dining room would not open for a couple of hours.
"I wish I'd brought enough lira with me to have a meal," Blanche complained, "but I didn't want to change another hundred dollars traveler's check so I bought a box of cookies to keep me going for the next few hours."
Dirk thought that Blanche had asked to meet him for lunch, but thought that he'd been mistaken, "I'd be happy to have you as my guest," he offered.
"Oh no, I couldn't possibly, but it does look so good. I'll tell you what Don," she murmured.
"Yes, of course. I'd be happy to borrow some lira for the crossing and then pay you in Tunisian money when we arrive."
"Well, sure," Dirk had told Blanche his plans but Blanche hadn't mentioned where she was going after they landed, "can we do that at the ferry building?"
"Well now, don't you trust me," she yelled, raising her voice, "first you invite me to lunch as your guest and then you quibble over a few lira when I have every intention of paying you back!"
She appeared to settle down and added more calmly, "I'm visiting an artist acquaintance I have through a friend in France. I'm going to be touring the provinces with him so I can buy rugs for my gallery. He lives in Tunis. He told me they have a money change right there. Right there at the dock. Don't worry, I'll pay you right back. That is if this tub ever gets out of the harbor. What is going on? You know, I'd really better get back downstairs, Carlos is so hot-tempered. I don't think they're so much interested in me as in defending my honor. After all, I haven't seen one Tunisian woman on this boat that isn't clearly with her husband. They probably think that you're up to no good, getting ready to put the make on a relic like me, you naughty boy you!" she laughed, painfully poking him in the ribs. "Lord knows what Carlos would do to you if we were to escape his eagle eyes for more than a few minutes. Ta, ta darling. Let's meet for lunch at one, shall we?"
He blinked his eyes in surprise at her sudden change of mind, but agreed to rendezvous at the dining room with her later. Blanche skipped off downstairs, humming. Dirk decided to go up to the top deck. When he reached it he wandered around, looking at the calm, swirling waters, and then, on the opposite side, the palm-tree bordered embankment of the port. From the distance the town seemed elegant with its graceful nineteenth century villas on the water.
He turned around to go downstairs and found himself face to face with one of the scruffiest people he had yet seen on board. He quickly sized him up: youthful grin, jeans, tee-shirt, pungent odor of sweat, strange haircut and backpack; a student, no question about it. Dirk wondered why he was smiling so enthusiastically. Never particularly friendly to scruffy strangers but flustered by his grin and his penetrating stare he said, "Hello."
"A British, yes?" the student replied. He seemed so happy.
"You are a British subject, yes?" the student asked, still grinning. He was two or three inches taller than Dirk with a Mohawk haircut The stripe of hair left on his head was dyed purple. "I know by your English you are a British subject, yes?"
"I'm an American," he answered cautiously, not really wanting to get into a conversation. In the corner of his eyes Dirk noticed Carlos about twenty yards away staring at him.
"From Pennsylvania, yes? We study Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Dutch you see."
"I'm from New York."
The student rolled his eyes in mock ecstasy. "Ah, New York! So exciting, so romantic! The people, the pastrami, the cheesecloth! America means to me New York, California, hamburgers, Charlie Brown, freedom and democracy." He grinned. Dirk wondered if it hurt him to grin so much. He didn't know what he meant by cheesecloth. Did he mean cheesecake?
"Yes, well, you know," Dirk mumbled, starting to walk away and pulling the student with him to shield himself from Carlos and his penetrating stare.
"You are so forceful, so strong!" the student exclaimed, giggling and blushing.
"What are you talking about? I think we should move, let's walk down there." He gestured to a group of people at the other end of the ship.
Dirk noticed with relief that Carlos was suddenly going back inside.
"And where are you from?" Dirk asked mechanically, although he didn't want to get trapped in a conversation with this scruffy stranger. Weren't there any professionals on board?
"Germany, Konstanz, West Germany, but I live in Berlin. I've come with my friends to make a holiday in Tunisia. You see it is getting to be winter where we are so we make a trip here for a little summer," he squinted and looked around, shielding his eyes with his hand, "where? Oh yes," he pointed to two women, one blond and the other red headed, laughing with Mehmet, one of Blanche's "boys," "you see down there are my friends Katia and Marlene. I think they have made a friend."
"It certainly looks like it," Dirk answered vaguely, wondering why Carlos had been following him.
He walked over to the side of the boat that looked down on the port. What was the matter? Why weren't they moving?
"My name, it is Wolfgang. Will you tell me yours?" he asked, extending his hand.
"Dirk, Dirk Futterman." Wolfgang's hand seemed a bit grubby. Much to his distress he could see that Carlos was again on deck, and this time he was bearing down on them rapidly.
"Let's go downstairs Wolfie and have a drink," he urged him frantically, pulling him along.
"I am sorry, but I do not have the Italian money…"
"My treat Wolfie, my treat," he declared, now dragging him along. Wolfgang laughed impetuously, "You Americans are so strong, so mad, but I like it, I like it!" As they were about to descend, a group of Tunisians began walking up the same stairwell, temporarily blocking their way. Carlos by this time had caught up with them. He smiled and handed Dirk a note, then patted him on the shoulders, smiled cordially at both of them, winked and left.
Dirk quickly unfolded the note while Wolfgang peered over his should. It read: "Don, the darling steward has just informed us that the ship is having engine trouble and will probably need two to three hours of repairs. He assures us that we will leave by three this afternoon. Isn't that good news? But at least we know now, don't we? 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,' that's what they should put over the gangplank when entering this tub, don't you think? Anyway, I hope you're killing time as pleasantly as I am. The boys are so attentive. It turns out that Khalid speaks and understands English much better than I thought. How embarrassing! I'd better watch what I say. We're discussing Tunisian and American politics for the moment while Carlos recommends hairstyles. See you in the dining room in one hour Donnie? – Blanche."
"Donnie?" Wolfgang asked looking over his shoulder. " I thought your name was Dirk."
"Let's go to the bar," Dirk muttered glumly.
At the bar he ordered a whisky for himself and a beer for Wolfgang and composing himself talked about Didi and their argument, this unplanned solo trip, the disgusting pension he had found for himself last night and the strange people he had to tolerate on board. The bartender brought their drinks. He drained his in one gulp as Wolfgang nursed his. He went onto explain something he had told no one, not even his mother or father.
"All of our friends are married, and they're having babies like rabbits. And there's Didi, working as a designer at a maternity house, and not only is she still single but even worse, she's childless. No one ever says anything, but she and I know what they're thinking of a young maternity wear designer without any children. They would be happier if we were living together unmarried with ten or twelve brats! And they really produce there, if you know that I mean, they're like guppies at this company. The really believe in testing their product. They have these company picnics where they bring their kids, and the women breast feed them in the shadows of the big trees near the picnic area, and then while they do this the guys crack dirty jokes. Then there's us, Didi and me, and we're all alone. We're just all alone. We don't fit in with the mothers or the fathers. I've tried, really, we have sex constantly, we're all over one another; we do it two or three time a week, but I just can't get her pregnant. I've been tested and I'm okay. She's been tested and she's okay. I just don't understand. I think she blames me." He furrowed his brow and paid the bill. "I'm so tired. I wish there was some place to lie down."
Wolfgang tasted the last of his beer and answered quietly, "You must come to my cabin then. Katia and Marlene are not there, and you can rest and we can talk about the strange adventures we will make in the Tunisian land." Dirk absently agreed, wobbling with fatigue and the potent whisky to Wolfgang's cabin where he immediately curled up on a bunk and fell asleep. Wolfgang squeezed in next to him and put his arms around him and eventually fell asleep, too.
Dirk woke up remarkably calmed. He came out of his whisky-clouded delirium gradually and felt Wolfgang's big arms wrapped around him and smelled his mingled scent of sweat and cigarettes. In his confused, half-conscious state, the odors reminded him of his father. When he was a little boy he would go into his parent's bed and fall asleep nestled in the space between. them. But when he realized that a man's arms were around him, and the man was not his father, he sat bolt upright, suddenly cold sober. He checked his Rolex. It was 1:05. He was late for Blanche. He rose quickly and checked his appearance in the tiny mirror above the wash basin. He attempted to slick down and comb his hair, tucked in his shirt and abruptly left with Wolfgang fast asleep. On his way out he ran into Katia and Marlene who were dragging a young man after them. It was Mehmet, Blanche's friend. He smiled shyly when he saw Dirk and blushed. Katia and Marlene stared at Dirk, smiled, and asked a question in German, but Dirk, not understanding what it meant pressed on past them. Wolfgang remained asleep, snoring every so slightly.
He had to struggle to remember where the dining room was. Although he had woken up completely, his head felt a little fuzzy from the whisky.
When he arrived at the dining room two Greek couples were standing around looking exasperated. Blanche was not to be seen. He noticed that the waiters were now running around taking food on display and rushing back into the kitchen with it. He turned around to one Greek woman, and she shrugged her shoulders and threw up her hands. He went to find Blanche.
People were milling about aimlessly, and it took even longer to get downstairs. The ship seemed like a floating bazaar. He found Blanche at her seat alone going through her bag. She spotted him.
"Yoo hoo big boy."
He stammered out an apology, but she waved it aside. "That's quite alright Doug, I never made it up there myself. Sit down." She patted the seat beside her. He did as he was told. She leaned over to him, looked into his eyes and said portentously, "Have you heard the latest?"
"No." He didn't bother to correct her about his name. It was pointless.
"They've lowered the gangplank! We're to enjoy the diversions of this deservedly unsung port for a few hours while they get their spit and polish and put this tub back together again. They're granting us shore leave. The passengers would mutiny if they didn't and I for one would have led the revolt. You will be my companion won't you Don?" she asked, applying some lipstick. He wished if she were going to get his name wrong that she at least be consistent.
He agreed, and they streamed out of the ship with the other impatient tourists into the town he had never expected to see again. This strange town that from the water looked so appealing. The dignified houses on the shore encircled alleys filled with the broken glass of Coca-Cola bottles. The gray streets were littered with discarded candy wrappers.
"What did you mean about putting the tub back together again?" he asked Blanche as she took keen strides forward. He had to run to keep up with her.
"Didn't I tell you? I asked one of the stewards. He said that they need a part to repair the engine, and it has to be driven in from the other end of the island. From Palermo I think. They said it's on its way but it'll take four or five hours to get here. Isn't that delightful? They closed the dining room for lunch and decided to serve dinner instead. They thought that those of us who are hungry could get something in town. Well now," she half-shouted, looking around, "everything seems to be closed. I brought some cookies with me Don, want one?" she asked, munching.
He declined. It did seem that everything was closed for siesta. At least the restaurants should have been open. Instead, they were locked and dark. In fact, the whole town seemed to be asleep. They were the only people walking around on this street except for some other passengers about ten yards ahead of them.
"I bet it's another religious holiday. That's why there were so few places to eat open last night you know," she murmured thoughtfully, popping another cookie into her mouth, "you're sure you don't want one Don? They're called 'Choco-Shock' (isn't that a funny name?). You're not going to ruin your appetite because we surely can't eat for another five hours." He shook his head. "No? Suit yourself. They really aren't bad. I certainly won't have any problem finishing the box. But I'd like something else. There must be someplace open. Now, if we were in France the railway station would have a restaurant, at least a café.
"What about the hotel you stayed at last night?"
"Bleak. It only served dinner and that would have been well worth missing. Where did you dine?"
He filled her in on his own disappointing meal the night before.
"Charming, But at least it seemed that people were alive and awake where you were. Where I dined, and I use that word loosely, it seemed that they were having a dowdy convention."
"A dowdy convention. A British fundamentalist tour group was staying in the hotel. They were the palest looking people I've ever seen. The women were dressed in pinafores and the men wore black suits and white shirts. Really, the most extraordinarily dreary group of people. And there I was with my boys trying to enjoy dinner. I guess I had a little too much wine, and I was laughing just a little too loud. Well, they looked at me as if I was some sort of strumpet. Next to them I did look like a wanton woman because they were so utterly devoid of life," she shivered a little, "I've seen bank executives with more zest and panache for living than they had. I just wanted to get out of the dining room after awhile. Just wanted to run out the door," she mumbled, popping another cookie into her mouth, "those people and the indifferent food depressed me. I wanted to leave this city as soon as I could. But here we are still," she stopped talking suddenly, and her eyes opened wide. She was pointing to a store. "Why Don," she yelled, hurling the empty cookie box into a trash can, clapping her hands and jumping up and down, "there's a Standa and it's open for business!"
Dirk has no idea what a Standa was, but he hadn't time to think about it as Blanche was rushing through its doors, and he had not alternative than to run to keep up with her.
Once inside he saw that she had stopped, waiting at the escalator in the middle of the cosmetics department for him. It appeared to be a small department store.
"I bet they have a food market," she whispered excitedly, stooping down with her face in front of his and one hand on his shoulder, "I bet they have a food department with cheese and apples and paté and wine and bread." She turned around, yanking him after her and started climbing the moving escalator. He had never been in an Italian department store and was amazed that it was so similar to those back home.
How she could even think of eating such things after all those cookies was beyond him. She calmed down a little, stopped climbing the moving escalator, letting it carry her up to the next floor where she looked around for food. They did this on every level until they reached the top floor where there was indeed a small supermarket. Blanche screeched in a kind of demented ecstasy.
She was practically beside herself. "You'll lend me some money won't you Dan? And we'll share the spoils. I can't understand why this store is open when everything is closed, but I don't care. I've got the can opener and they've got the cans."
Everything was tinned, jarred or in boxes, but there was some fresh fruit and cheese as well as a few salamis. It would certainly do them better than another box of "Choco-Shock." Blanche was already piling things into her arms and asked "Don" if he would get them a basket. She had seemed to have finally decided on Dan or Don as a suitable name for him. He glumly wondered what it would finally be.
He found a handcart, and maneuvering past the considerable number of passengers from the boat that had also located the store, caught up with Blanche who had shot over to another part of the market. She put her items in the cart. He dropped in some things of his own which he had snatched from the shelves. She looked down at his items critically, mostly food that you would buy if you had the facilities to prepare a meal. He rarely went shopping, only tagging behind Didi as she did the comparison shopping, and he fingered bags of pork rinds which she never let him buy.
Blanche brought the errant items to his attention and weeded them out; packets of yeast (he thought it was instant milk) tomato purée (he thought it was tomato juice), a can of Vienna sausages (she convinced him the salami would be better and enough for two) and an enormous container of olives (she had a small jar). The only thing the store didn't sell was bread. They had to settle for some whole grain crackers.
As they strode up and down the aisles, they passed Katia and Marlene with Mehmet. They were apparently examining a tube of anchovy paste. Mehmet looked exhausted but happy. Kati and Marlene had their arms around him affectionately and would not let him go. It didn't seem to Dirk that he wanted to be released.
Katia was red-headed, laughed frequently, and had a lavish body that she unabashedly displayed with shorts and a tied top, while elegant Marlene, blond haired and cooler, was a bit more ironic looking and seemed privately amused. Mehmet had the handsome almond shaped brown eyes one sees in the Near East. Altogether they made a very attractive menage.
Dirk was a little shocked that Katia and Marlene should have thrown over Wolfgang so, but then he didn't understand their travelling situation. When Mehmet saw Dirk he blushed and smiled, but did nothing to untwine himself from his two new friends.
Dirk looked at them while they stared back, smiled and greeted him, this time in English. Blanche came up from behind and asked loudly, "Well Mehmet, how's tricks?" She winked and nudged him and seemed as unmoved by the situation as Dirk was bothered by it.
Mehmet blushed again, introduced the women to Blanche, and they all chatted a bit. Apparently they all spoke English quite well. Dirk hung back while Blanche went on and on, talking and laughing with the women while gesturing with her sunglasses. It turned out that Katia was an aeronautics engineer and Marlene was a model. How strange Dirk thought, from their appearances these roles could have been reversed.
They finally parted, much to Dirk's relief. The Germans and Mehmet remained tied in their love knot trying to move down the aisles without knocking over anything.
"I hope they buy some high protein, food, they'll need it," Blanche sighed dreamily, smiling after them.
Now Dirk blushed.
"What's the matter Don?" she asked as they waited to pay for their food.
"Nothing," he lied. He felt so out of his element.
"Oh, come on partner, what's the matter? You look like a rattlesnake who's lost his rattle."
He didn't say anything until they had paid and were again out on the deserted street.
"They seemed to be having such a good time," he said somewhat despondently.
"Who? Mehmet and the German girls?"
"You mean you're not having the time of your life with me?" she teased him. "I'm cut to the quick." He wondered if she was making fun of him.
The bag was heavy and he asked Blanche to carry it awhile. As they walked down the empty streets, he noticed a lone figure slowly approaching them from the distance. He realized that it was Wolfgang. When he spotted Dirk he started running towards them. Dirk wanted to run and hide, but there was no time. He came up to them huffing and puffing, and Dirk noticed that he had shaved and showered and changed his clothes. It made quite a difference.
"And so here you are my American friend. I was awokened by my friends…"
"Awakened," he corrected him. Blanche was fumbling in the grocery bag.
"Yes, yes, awakened by Katia and Marlene who were wishing me to leave for a sex interlude with a Tunisian."
Dirk was horribly embarrassed that he had mentioned this and did not even want to attempt to tell him that "sex interlude" was a rather peculiar way of putting it.
"So I was awakened and you were gone from our cabin. Why did you not awaken me for your departure? I am very saddened, but I understand. Still, I am very saddened. It is usually I who have no problem finding a partner for a sex interlude, and now I feel rather alone with Katia and Marlene all rolled up with Mehmet."
Blanche interrupted, apparently oblivious to the conversation which was so embarrassing to Dirk, "Why don't we find a place to have a little picnic boys?" she asked, having finally located the jar of olives she had been searching for. She opened it and popped one into her mouth.
"What your friend's name Don?" she mumbled, chewing.
Before he could answer, Wolfgang introduced himself. "I wonder what she'll do to that," Dirk thought. He was amazed that she could eat olives after that box of 'Choco-Shock.'
They walked back to the dock with Wolfgang and Blanche chattering between themselves. It turned out that Wolfgang was a painter in art school, and he and Blanche had a lot in common. Dirk was rather annoyed when it turned out that Blanche had absolutely no problem with Wolfgang's name. In fact, the few times that Wolfgang turned to speak to Dirk during their walk back to the port, he started addressing him as Don. It was infuriating. He had had enough.
"You know, I wish both of you would get my name straight. The name is Dirk, Dirk Futterman. Not Don or Dan or Doug or Dick. Dirk. D-I-R-K. Dirk. Got it everybody? I won't answer to anything else from now on. You want time to practice? You want to write it a hundred times on a piece of paper to remember it?" he yelled.
Blanche and Wolfgang stared at him in consternation. After a few moments Blanche quietly commented, "Well, honestly, you don't have to get so upset about such a little thing. Do you think I'd get upset if someone met me for the first time and mistook me by another name?"
"You're the one who had the sign painted over!" Dirk shouted back, referring back to the appropriation of her name by the Joan Crawford movie.
For awhile an uncomfortable silence muffled any conversation. They wandered down the streets and alleys, finally finding themselves at a park a few blocks away from the port.
Blanche took out the food, ripped open the bag and placed it on a park bench. She placed everything on the paper and then opened the cans, jars and boxes, took out some paper cups and offered Dirk and Wolfgang mineral water or beer, handed them their choice and a napkin, and despite the tension began a little feast.
Dirk hesitantly asked, "Where did you get the cups and napkins?"
"From the bar on board the Titanic," she snapped back between nibbles. He knew she was still mad. Suddenly she got up.
"It's been lovely, but I think the boys will be missing me. Besides, I have to pee so I'll be getting back to the ship now," she said, brushing off her long, immaculate skirts, "good to meet you Wolf," and turning she added, "now make sure that we meet at the money change in the port at Tunis, Dirk," she added, overemphasizing his name.
"Okay Blanche, but I'll see you before that, right?" he asked timidly, saddened that he had made her mad.
"We'll see," she purred and haughtily walked off.
Wolfgang continued to eat slowly and thoughtfully. Dirk sat there and finally asked cautiously, "Do you hate me too Wolfgang?"
Wolfgang laughed, spewing bits of food out of his mouth. Dirk had to laugh, too.
"Of course not my American friend. I understand your problem with your feeling about your name. It is not so funny having it mixed up. Maybe it is not so bad that you made her angry because I wanted to talk to you for a few moments."
Dirk studied Wolfgang's sunburned and somewhat pockmarked face. Not a handsome face, but a fascinating one with deeply colored, startling blue eyes. He rubbed his face as if it pained him with his large, smooth hands, then massaged his blonde Mohawk with the purple stripe dyed down the middle. His demeanor had changed since their meeting on the boat. His student's happy-go-lucky mood had disappeared, leaving behind someone who seemed tired and sad. For the first time Dirk realized that a large frame Wolfgang had and vaguely remembered the feeling he'd had when they shared the bunk in the cabin. That's why he had thought of his father: Wolfgang's hug had been so strong.
"I should have realized when you talked of your desire for babies, that you were not…" he paused, "not my kind, but I have been a bit unhappy on this trip and you seemed so nice. I am sorry if I have offended you. This journey was the idea of Katia and Marlene. My special friend has died one month ago, and they were knowing my sadness and thought we should make a holiday. We did not know one another long, my special friend and I. He had just arrived in West Berlin and was…what do you say…an artist of performances…"
Dirk was not sure what he meant, but he had heard a similar word in college, "Performance artist?"
"Yes, that is it. So I am sorry."
Dirk hesitated before saying anything. "There's no reason to apologize Wolfgang. I haven't felt like myself on this trip. You listened to my complaints about Didi, and I never thanked you, I just got up and left. I'm the one who should apologize to you."
Wolfgang took Dirk's hand and pressed it, and Dirk was again surprised at his strength.
They returned to the ship which settled down into a state of relaxed chaos. That night Dirk had dinner with Katia, Marlene, Mehmet and Wolfgang while Blanche glared at him from another table with the remaining "boys." But later she came over for coffee and talked to him as if nothing had happened. He wondered how she could eat dinner there without any lira, but it turned out that they took Visa, and she brandished her card boldly to the waiter when the check arrived.
They finally pulled out of port just as they were rising from the dinner table, and distant shouts from all parts of the ship and applause from the dining room echoed through the corridors. They were on their way at nine o'clock at night, twelve hours late.
He slept badly that night, writhing and turning in his seat. At one point during the journey he awoke and went outside, passing on the way the whole sloppy tangle of humanity that he had come to accept, reluctantly, but with a grudging civility. He nodded to some of the weary students who were unable to rest, and, wrapped in their sleeping bags reading, looked at this curiously well-dressed yet disheveled figure who passed them along the corridor.
He went outside and stood on one of the decks utterly alone, shivering violently from the cold winds and from his fear of the grotesque black expanse of the Mediterranean, which slipped quickly away from him as the ferry pressed on to its destination, the choppy seas almost invisible except for their reflection of a shimmer of moonlight. The ship's lamps illuminated only the deck's damp flooring. Their radiance dropped away from the darkness beyond the ferry as precipitously as any cliff.
He hugged himself against the cold and his fear of the night sea. But as frightened as he was by the seething water he was also drawn to the railing. He leaned over it, fascinated by the frothing, roiling swells that foamed mightily in the ship's wake. He was terrified by the enormity that lay beyond the railing at the same time that he was thrilled by the wild darkness.
He had accommodated himself to the mystery of the voyage and his expected arrival into a strange city in the wee hours. He was afraid, but he was excited too, and he almost didn't want to join the tour of the Island of the Lotus-Eaters. If he could cancel his tour and find one of those louages, those taxis across the desert he had read about used by the Tunisians, he would board one of them for an oasis city.
He walked from the stern to the bow of the ship and inhaled the cutting, salty winds. An officer waved to him from the warm light of the bridge. There was apparently someone in charge of this ship after all, despite the confusion surrounding its departure. Dirk looked at the black, transparent sky and the icy stars, the sliver of moon as sharp as a sickle and realized with astonishment that he wanted to be surprised.
Copyright 2011 by Claude Chabot. All rights reserved.