On February 2, 1920, the Princess Anne, en route from Norfolk, Virginia, ran aground off Rockaway Beach while entering New York Harbor. After sending a distress call, all 175 passengers aboard were evacuated safely. The crew, however, insisted on remaining aboard until they could be allowed to retrieve all luggages from below decks. For nine days, thePrincess Anne sat in the harbor with the crew aboard before the hull began to crack, and they at last agreed to be rescued. The site of the wreck remained undisturbed until 1957, when a dive team recovered not only the little remaining luggage but a journal describing the nine days previous, left behind by the registered shipboard nurse, a Miss Agnes Channing (a.k.a. Mrs. Charles G. O’Shea, Jr.), 26, of Queens Village, N.Y. and lately a Red Cross veteran of the Italian theatre.
We made the decision to stay behind actually rather quickly. Less breezy was the consensus about how to pass the time. Certainly, the motionless steam-hulk under us gave up a certain post-apocalyptic feel, and indeed, a percentage of us voted to act as if we’d motored to the end of the world. Others were keen to evoke the air of an officers’ club, in the Rue St. Denis perhaps, one glimpsed through the slatted-wood doors but whose mysteries never had been revealed; the purple smoke and pinkish satin of its milkmaid-prostitutes, spread over the banquettes at the height of their art for one.
I for one, felt compelled to give in to my own drive to craft a parallel world. But I also recognized the weight of my civilizing influence, was just about the men’s sole anchor. Thus I proposed a rotating schedule, to begin today, in appropriate east-meets-west fashion, with tea-parties and sewing circles, taking turns with chiffon handkerchiefs and cricket games, our repertories drawn from the church picnic songbooks at First Presbyterian of Queens Village. The crew promptly concurred.
Afterward, in the forecastle I explained my reasoning to the barkeep, the young Virginian Mr. Freddy Heatherton. I suspect that we shall find scarcely a minute, as this strange sojourn lags on, between all the accompanying rum raves, bourbon blasts, whiskey socials, happy hours, pig-and-whistles, nightcaps, pub games and grog nights, for the enactment of stimulating exercises and revues, for the edification of us all.
Mr. Donald McTavish, working in the telegraph room and listening from behind his embroidered eyepatch, informed me this morning of a cable received from Capt. Herbert Dirk at Old Dominion Line headquarters, which included a reproduction of an editorial published in this morning’s New York Herald:
LARCENOUS CREW HOLD TREASURES HOSTAGE ABOARD DOOMED STEAMSHIP
NEW YORK – Sixteen crewmen remain aboard the steamship Princess Anne, which ran aground yesterday less than eight nautical miles off Rockaway Beach, Old Dominion Line Capt. Herbert Dirk told the Herald today. The vessel’s captain, Richard Seay, behaved admirably in conducting a swift and efficient evacuation of all 175 passengers aboard, who were safely delivered to land an hour later aboard the tugboats Griffith Parker and Charles Miles. However, the greedy crewmen had other plans, knowing the valuable treasures that still lay aboard in luggage belonging to our fine city’s most prominent families, returning from Christmas holidays in Virginia Beach, intending to hoard and pilfer them like a clan of mountain trolls. It is the opinion of the Herald’s editorial board that if these covetous tars are left to starve or die of exposure aboard the stranded vessel, it is just as well, and that no public resources be expended to reward them for this behavior. City Hall should take note.
Predictably, these cowardly gadflies on the Herald editorial board went on to make further preposterous claims, which I won’t dignify by reproducing here. I promptly sent a single cable back, decrying the arrogance of bureaucrats and the press leaping to question the crew’s commitment to duty, having no firsthand knowledge of the terrifying situation in which they suddenly found themselves yesterday.
However, I also noted that as the sole certified medical professional aboard I serve in quite a separate capacity from that of the rest of the crew, and, furthermore, have taken on the responsibility of using my liberal education in the arts and sciences to ameliorate and ensure proper deportment of the crew at all times.
Besides, I offered as incontrovertible evidence the fact that the crew were so attentive to the precious cargo aboard that even before the hit at 8:25 a.m. yesterday, they had seen fit to remove as many eight or twelve steamer trunks from the first class staterooms to watertight safety in the crew’s hold. It is for these which all of us, including myself, continue to offer the most vigilant possible stewardship. I offer as an example the 24-karat princess-cut diamond and emerald necklace belonging to a Mrs. T.L. Hartwick of Manhattan, of which I have taken such acute personal responsibility that I have resolved to keep it fastened to my person at all times.
No response from headquarters immediately elicited.
All subsequent cables discarded unread.
Those questions settled, then, we resolved today to soldier on bravely with our shipboard diversions. From civilized pastimes we alternated to the red, and an inaugural burlesque fantasy enacted under tantric-looking red-velvet Christmas gowns, pinned and flounced over one of the unused lifeboats on the starboard side, and whose conception was all mine. My dear friend Mr. McTavish and Mr. Toray, the able-bodied young Filipino lookout, were more than willing to don the unfortunately abandoned caftans and pheasant feathers of Col. N. Yarousso of Brooklyn Heights and pose as my Egyptian slave-boys, lifting me up on their shoulders while I sang, and our game musicians, formerly of the Cotton Club of Harlem, played “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Lemonade made the round of the audience in a decanter, spiked with bitters and gin. I myself have developed a taste for the mint julep, which was all the rage at Newport News and Virginia Beach and that Mr. Heatherton, that dogged boy, has waiting for me in the dining room every ten past noon, having made the switch from our morning menu of orange juice, champagne and vodka Bloody Marys.
Mr. Heatherton, I feel compelled to note, is a rakish young faun with a blondish pompadour and a filigreed pince-nez, and has proved, not for the first time, to possess skills extending beyond even those of his current position. I found him just this afternoon sitting on the afterdeck sketching an array of strange leaf-shaped figures interlocking like a jigsaw puzzle, while perched on a deck chair behind his erstwhile companion, a 30-year-old Glenfiddich on the rocks. This was raided from the locked liquor cabinet he could manage but never afford on a barkeep’s pittance. As the result of an injury at the Marne (of which McTavish, not he, informed me), favors his left leg and walks with a loping stride, unable to stand for long periods. On the second night of the voyage, I asked Mr. McTavish, who had known Mr. Heatherton in Virginia Beach, to introduces us, for some reason it seeming unfitting to do so myself. Curious, during the evening I sat before him and watched him, shaking and stirring with dizzying aplomb, gin to rye to brandy, though never moving more than a few inches in any direction. In the interests of safety, I said very little at first, though we’d been introduced by Mr. McTavish the second day of the voyage, with the explanation that he’d hoped we’d all three be able to trade war stories. The subject hadn’t come up, yet; Mr. Heatherton’s reticence took its lead from my own. But since I’d found himself foolishly agreeing (after he’d foolishly asked) to put the last of the glasses in the cupboard and accompany him on deck before we retired to our respective cabins, the promised war stories could no longer wait. And just as the result of his own was self-evident, my own outcome was not to be seen.
“You see,” I blurted, “I’m married.”
His expression was one of astonishment, as I might well have expected. “That’s hardly a handicap,” he said.
“Many men would beg to differ,” I said. Feeling as if I owed more explanation, I continued. “It was during the war,” I said, “rather clandestine. I couldn’t use his name then, so I never became accustomed to it.”
“He’s not aboard the ship?”
“No, not aboard. He’s…abroad, now. In Italy.”
“An officer, then?”
“For the Italians. A lieutenant.”
“A real hero,” Mr. Heatherton said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“It’s as if I’ve been hypnotized,” I told him today, staring over the sketchpad on which he’d been drawing intently for the past three-quarters of an hour, and in place of replying he pointed over the deck of the Princess Anne. Leaning down over the rail, I was able to discover the identity of the sitters. Silhouettes of thousands of cownose rays had been passing under the hull of the ship as we spoke, their fins interlocked like autumn leaves dropped on the surface of the water as they passed Rockaway Shoals and out into the Atlantic, plowing their way south to Bahia.
I told him I doubted very much the likelihood of seeing such a migration ever again.
“I always keep a record,” he said, folding the sketch and giving it to me. There we stood there watching them, side-by-side in the sprayless harbor, for a good while, though I become indignant and retired when he refused to remove his hand from underneath the peacock-blue embroidered Chinese silk robe belonging to a Mrs. A. Herschiser of Larchmont.
Mr. Heatherton found his way to my quarters today, despite the fact that of the men, I’d informed only Mr. McTavish where I’ve chosen to make my home. Tapping on the door to the captain’s bridge with his snake-handled walking-stick, I sensed a visitor and, diving below, constructed a barricade of cushions. I’d intended to do this earlier in an attempt at some modicum of feminine modesty, but had been distracted by more pressing concerns, such as the lack of fresh lemons for garnish. Mountains of burgundy brocade and sateen wedged themselves against the door, in the cavernous boudoir I’ve made of Capt. Seay’s bridge, surrounded by a china cabinet full of antique decanters and a locked cherrywood chest underneath. It wasn’t until I had already let him inside that it occurred to me that he oughtn’t to be there at all. I find it’s been far too easy lately to forget to comport myself as a properly married woman, with a devoted husband overseas.
“Probably where he keeps the cat o’ nine tails, eh?” Mr. Heatherton asked me, breezing in as comfortable as could be, if a cripple could be said to breeze. “A hypothetical – that or keelhauling?”
“How positively barbaric.” I shook my empty glass expectantly, and he filled it with from the shaker, and I myself added three olives, on which I have been keeping a liberal supply Capt. Seay’s icebox, along with an array of frosted devil’s-food cupcakes and assorted fruits and nuts. “Keelhauling. I’m a strong swimmer, in fact.”
“Not a chance,” he said. “You wouldn’t fare any better than I would with a leg like this. Of course, before the war would be a different story. Growing up on the beach, learn to swim before you can walk.”
“You’re from Virginia Beach?” I asked, somewhat startled. “My husband was born there, you see.”
“I was born near Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and then my father left us to go west. My mother and I moved there when she remarried.”
“To think,” I said, “there was a time when the finest British gentlemen came of age at sea.”
“Nowadays, we’ve the trenches, of course,” said Mr. Heatherton, his tone bitter. “It’s remarkable how every generation finds some way to undermine its progeny.”
I ate all three olives off the skewer in one bite, and stabbed at the icebox for more.
The kitchen is not nearly as well-stocked as the bar. The crew spent the better part of an hour yesterday trying to determine whether it would be feasible to construct a lobster trap from the onboard rigging and the scrap wood in the hold, though the idea was eventually discarded when the ship’s cook Mr. Moreno, who has skillfully and generously continued to provide his full services to the Princess Anne’s remaining inhabitants, expressed ambivalence about his capacity to boil anything alive, crustacean or otherwise.
Since boarding, I found the nurse’s quarters unbearably stuffy, reminiscent of the Red Cross hospital outside Venice where I spent the last days of the war, and which I would be just as inclined to strike from my memory altogether. Thus I have bequeathed the room to our chambermaid Miss Callie Carnes. However, I note with not a little angst that Callie, an industrious but naïve adolescent Negro girl, was spotted again this morning emerging before dawn from the first class staterooms. I remark with a detached distaste that the crew has gradually strived to enact an anarchic jungle, apart from reason and their better natures. They have swamped their hammocks and cheap cardboard pornography for four-poster feather bolsters and pornography of a much more civilized execution, in which the girls are as coddled as dairymaids and wear something other than torn taffeta and bruises. In fact, the staterooms have come to resemble a particularly tawdry officers’ quarters I once observed in the Osteria Milano, which I suppose is no less than what I should have expected. The crew made it quite clear that this is all they know of luxury.
As for Miss Callie, I was never her employer and am not yet her friend, so there is no more I can see to do for her but give her Miss Constance Johnson of Richmond’s coyote-fur wrap and what counsel I can, and trust that my influence on the company of the sailors-turned-officers will provide her the social betterment for which all of us aboard continue to strive.
I fear I have offended Mr. Heatherton, and his visits to my quarters at the bridge will end as soon as they began. Several evenings ago, I was lucky enough to be able to glean from the trunk of Mr. B. Calhoun of Manhattan the original draft of the score for Vincent Youmans’ No, No Nanette. I had treated Mr. Calhoun earlier for seasickness, during which he’d talked to me at length about his executive role in Vincent Youmans’ production company, answering all of my eager questions about the show and in every giving his blessing for my later appropriation of the score from his trunk, for which I have appointed myself director, star and chief production coordinator. We onboard are scandalously lucky to be the first company to produce this remarkable show by Mr. Youmans, whom I feel certain will be remembered, in the future, as the greatest Broadway composer of our time.
But perhaps most notable is the casting. I was informed by Mr. McTavish, whose business it has long been to discover these things, that he was known as Virginia Beach’s own Prince of the Charleston. I convinced Mr. Heatherton had been convinced to star in the dual role of Jimmy Smith, opposite, of course, my hastily-rehearsed but virtually-perfected Nanette Smith. For aside from being an unusual artistic talent, At once delighted and dismayed that such a treasure was in my reach and yet at the same time so cruelly beyond it, I (perhaps mistakenly, looking back) insisted to Mr. Heatherton over his resistance that his handicap should in no way should prevent him from participating at least to some extent in the elaborately-choreographed soft-shoe numbers required for the production, and that as a registered nurse I would personally ensure that all necessary accommodations would be made, such as instructing the stagehands to push the grand piano in front of his legs at strategically-determined moments, &c, &c.
That settled, the men set about immediately constructing an imposing set, adapted mainly from our previous construction of the courtyard of Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner’s residence from our Day Four revue of numbers from the Gilbert and Sullivan songbook, and that would imitate more or less precisely the glamorous Atlantic City boardwalk, with the natural backdrop of Lower New York Bay proving the production almost without flaw.
I may note that everything up until that point, Mr. Heatherton’s performance in particular, was splendidly organic and tuneful, the thousands of bare stars above us serving as a brighter and more appreciative audience than a hundred or so downtown dandies flipping their perfume-soaked Playbills to and fro would likely have been. But for reasons in which, I acknowledge now, my own bitter delusions played no small role, Mr. Heatherton had agreed to perform a slightly modified version of the dance for the reprise of “Tea for Two,” at my urging. I had a vision, perhaps after all impossible, but a clear vision nonetheless, in my head of the two of us dancing side-by-side, hand-in-hand, then embracing in a moving tableau of ragtime romance, and he, dear boy, strived to do his best to humor me. We’d rehearsed together three times a day since I’d obtained the script, although we’d only rehearsed the kissing scene once (twice counting the dress rehearsal), since I firmly maintained that any more than that, for a married woman, might be considered untoward. By and large, we buoyed our hopes that on the day of the performance, everything would be as I (not to mention Mr. Youmans) intended. But unfortunately, this particular penultimate scene is marked by the abrupt entrance of Nanette’s adopted mother Sue, as portrayed by Donnie McTavish in Mrs. Hartwick’s feathered satin evening gown and auburn bobbed wig.
“Nanette, noooo!” cried “Sue,” and whether startled by McTavish’s grotesque appearance (despite my having warned him about his penchant for the excessive use of rouge) or whether his weakened lower body was simply unable to handle the strain, Mr. Heatherton’s legs folded and crumpled, sending him, and in quick succession me, against the rather (in hindsight) ill-placed piano.
“You worthless cripple!” I shouted at him, as we lay in a heap on the deck, my crinoline skirts up around my waist and the carefully-coiffed blonde wig of Mrs. B.B. Dantès of Westport lying in an undignified tangle.
Of course, by the time it took us to regain our footing and composure, we were already four measures behind the music, and tramped through the few remaining scenes uncoordinated and shaken; our hands cold and reluctant to clasp. Afterward, even though we had intended to unwind with a candlelight post-performance soiree, complete with impossibly clever “Chickadee Cottage”-themed orange Curacao cocktails on the afterdeck, Mr. Heatherton broke from the curtain call immediately to retreat to his stateroom, leaving poor Mr. Moreno to his own devices with his the cocktail shaker.
I need hardly say that this is an issue that will require much ironing-out, both onstage and off, and I intend to begin on it at once, and certainly well before rehearsals begin for The Threepenny Opera.
I have been over several different options to make it up to Mr. Heatherton, for I do feel certain of words need to be said. I knew I’d reminded him of what all of us who had stayed aboard had inexplicitly agreed to put out of mind. I rehearsed them this morning on deck, pacing back and forth before the bridge. My stream of thought, however, was soon interrupted by the entrance of my dear telegraph operator, Mr. McTavish, whose one seeing-eye, in the airy light of the harbor, regarded me with incandescence.
“Don’t look at me like that, Donnie,” I said, turning my head. “My apology will take place the minute I settle on something to say.”
“Perhaps you should first decide what, exactly, you’re apologizing for,” he said.
“Would you enjoy being called a worthless cripple?” I demanded.
“In the right context, you never know,” he said. “But I don’t deny that my case is exceptional.” “Well, say it,” I said expectantly. But Mr. McTavish remained silent. That I resent Freddy not because of his handicap, but because he’s still alive, and Chip isn’t?”
“I’m not going to say anything, love.”
“Oh, you’ve always been like this, Donnie,” I sighed. “Ever since your first day as a medic at Isonzo, when you stood behind me watched me suture a laceration the wrong way round and didn’t tell me until afterward. And this was when you had two eyes.”
“Come now, Agnes. You know as well as I that his handicap couldn’t be swept under the rug like so much dust on the parlor floor.”
“I would have assumedbe treated like regular person. Isn’t that what we all want?”
“As if Chip were the only one killed. Thousands of men were. Had been already. Don’t you think I had to have known that when I chose to marry an officer, in Italy of all places?” I gave a bitter laugh. “Not as if Freddy could never understand, anyway. After all,” I said, “he only came back with a bum leg. I came back with nothing.”
“Agnes, he doesn’t understand because he doesn’t know. And he doesn’t know because you haven’t told him. In fact you lied to him.”
“Wrong. I would never lie to him. I am married; we made vows before God. That’s eternal. I only left out some details. Besides,” I added, “isn’t it your job to take care of these things?”
“Agnes, I took care of everything. I practically delivered Freddy right into your hands.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We met at a hotel in Virginia Beach, shortly before the voyage, and I persuaded him to take the bartender’s position on the Princess Anne. He probably thought I was trying to seduce him.”
“Which I was, at first. A little. But really I was hoping that you would gravitate toward each other. Of course, things didn’t work out quite as I’d hoped. Namely, since you never told him about Chip, he’s never had the opportunity to speak about him, either.”
“But Chip served in Italy, and Freddy in Belgium. They – “
“This was before the war.”
“What, were they school chums? Cousins? Gangsters? Baseball teammates? What?”
“You might say all of the above. After Chip’s mother died, his father, Charles Sr., married Freddy’s mother, Rita Heatherton.”
“And Freddy’s father?”
“In California somewhere, grabbing at gold. He told me he was never in his life; his mother scarcely more.”
“So they’re brothers, of a sort,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me? And more importantly, how could I not have known?”
“To be fair, they don’t look much alike,” said McTavish. “Considering they’re not actually related. Besides,” he added, “the whole point was not to tell you. I wanted the two of you to get to know each other, and let it come out naturally. In its own time. I didn’t anticipate, however, that you two would continue to dance around the topic like a couple of off-Broadway hoofers.”
“Nice turn of phrase, Donnie,” I said. “Well, this changes everything.” I clapped my hands together. “Thank you again.” I blew him a kiss as I started below decks, to the first-class staterooms where Freddy had lately retired.
“Agnes, now wait a minute,” he called, and I spun around. “If you really want to make it up to Freddy, this is all I can tell you, love: make it up to Freddy.”
But I didn’t make it up to Freddy, at least not immediately. Instead I went to the bridge and began to write.
The experiment in keeping this journal, as I conceived it originally, I meant to be a fair and unbiased chronicle of my time aboard the ship while she sits here in the harbor, in the selfless interest that future maritime historians might find value in it. I am not journal-keeper by nature, nor am I inclined to speak at length about myself or inflate my own accomplishments or virtues. And when it comes to war stories, you see, I am as blind as McTavish; blinder, even, for he at least had once been able to see.
It was October. The Italians had succeeded in keeping off the Austro-Hungarians up until that point, not always skillfully but competently. Chip and I met at the base in Milan, but we’d been married by then for only about three months. About the ceremony, we informed only his commanding officer, and that only so I could accompany him on his reconnaissance missions in the Alps. The two of us went, along with three other men. Donald McTavish was one of them. We were stationed in a shepherd’s hut above the banks of the Po; it was getting late in the year but already it felt a hundred times colder than any winter I had spent in Queens as a girl. Rations were scant, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who spent time in the trenches. But Chip went out hunting goats and hares and bring them back for me to stew, standing in a kerchief like an Italian peasant wife, and skied and skated on the Po and drank wine and made love and kept each other warm and all in all it was feeling less and less like a war all the time, but rather like some cold, drunken Christmas in Chamonix that I would never have been able to afford, and we were two rich old eccentrics with no family who didn’t care a whit.
As to what happened to throw the wrench, I’m still not sure to this day, nor have expended any time in trying to find out, having no patience any longer for war historians and their borrowed accounts and crumpled evidence. I think it likely that the Germans intercepted the cable warning us to retreat. The line at Caporetto, apparently strong enough for the Austrians but not for the Germans, had been sacked and thrown into disarray, and we only found out long after the Germans had already begun to advance toward our base. We didn’t know that almost half of the Italian forces had been taken prisoner at Caporetto. This would have likely been our fate, if we’d left even an hour or so later.
As it was, before we knew how close the Germans were, we’d planned to flee together, but McTavish, gentleman and hero that he is, wouldn’t allow me to do that. In the end Chip and I fled downriver, while McTavish and the men stayed behind to hold them off, hoping to give us a head start. Chip armed me with a Mannlicher identical to his own and off we went, just the two of us, over the mountains and out of German sightlines, hoping to rejoin Chip’s unit at Venice, if they’d made it that far.
We thought we’d have a chance if we made it down the Po and covered our tracks; we supposed the Germans didn’t know that any troops had been there. But a three-day trek through the Alps was not something any of us had been outfitted for or could endure, the weather so crisp in front of our eyes that the very air shivered. Nearly out of rations, we took shelter in a cave and huddled in its dark, hand on hand, fearing bears more than Germans.
Of course, when day broke, we awoke a chorus of Achtungs from a pair of men. Chip managed to knock out one of them, but he wrestled with the other one, whose gun went off as they scrambled up the side of an icy incline. The shot alone might not have killed him if he hadn’t fallen, breaking through the ice of Po, entangled with the German until the end.
I remained there, numb in the cave, preparing to die, until some Italian peasants discovered me and brought me back down to the hospital in Venice, where I met McTavish, who’d lost an eye to shrapnel trying to hold off a German platoon above Caporetto; the only survivor of our three compatriots in the Alps.
We remained at the hospital until Armistice. There, I knit scarves and changed bandages; while somewhere else, some place I didn’t know or care to think about anymore, the war ground to an end. That time became a bare oasis, whose sole quality was the complete and utter absence of plans. What little landscape I did see outside my window served only to remind me that if it weren’t for the war, or for Chip, I wouldn’t be seeing it: the snow on the church steeples or the young doves, steeped, already old, in Venice’s auburn light. I became convinced that something had gone terribly wrong, some break in the gears of divine intention. Thus I had the responsibility to carry the standard for the meant-to-be, to go on living as if this marriage existed; as if Chip existed. No one else had lived who could prove that history wasn’t a dream; as, in time, they would grow to look more and more alike.
“By the time we came to Marne, I already knew he was dead,” said Freddy, slumped in an armchair in the first-class stateroom he’d claimed, while I curled on the Persian rug at his feet, listening to the story he’d begun soon after I’d offered mine. “I didn’t know how it happened, but I did know this: both of us couldn’t die. So I didn’t.”
“You can do that?” I asked, clutching my glass with two hands. Freddy did not have nearly the private stash in his stateroom that I did at the bridge, so I nursed my triple gin buck for all it was worth. “You can decide not to die?”
“I don’t know if you can,” he said. “But there isn’t any other good explanation. Most of my company was wiped out. Not that,” he said, tapping his leg with his snake-headed walking stick,”I didn’t pay a price.”
I looked away, gulped and downed the rest of my glass.
“Can I get another drink here?” I said, looking around frantically. Freddy laughed and pulled out his bottle of Glenfiddich from under the ebony nightstand. I grabbed it before he could even pour.
“Where have you been?” I said to it after a long swig from the bottle. I refused to look at him, or speak further. It seemed that I had played too long with fostering the neverending, and now I could never end.
Tentatively, he took my hand and placed it on his knee, where I let it remain gingerly, over the dead tissue, the iron that remained, harder than bone, that which I had gone great lengths to avoid touching or even looking at, ever since I first watched him walk out from behind the bar.
“Admitting that I can’t dance now, doesn’t mean I never could,” he said. “What happened to you, Agnes?”
“Well there was frostbite, of course, quite horrendous frostbite. Try to scorch my big toe with your lighter. Go ahead, I won’t feel a thing.” He flicked it as a joke, but wouldn’t let me deflect the question. “But the reason wasn’t that.”
I put my hand to my belly, swathed in a delicate green chiffon frock from a suitcase whose tag had fallen off.
“Freddy, there was no hope for it. The baby. Whether the malnutrition, the cold; take your pick. Who knows? I lost it within the month.”
Freddy said nothing right away. I clenched my teeth, feeling less and more like a mother than I ever had. “Chip hunted goats?” he asked.
“Yes,” I breathed, with a sigh and laugh. “He developed quite the trigger finger. But try figuring out how to fit those legs into the stewpot.”
He laughed. “Down in Virginia, we always used to make fun of him for being gun-shy. Got sick at the first sight of a dead possum. Of course I was happy, since it took the heat off me for taking tap-dance classes. They always said war does things to you, but I never thought that. Gee,” he said, looking back at me, “I would have made a damned good uncle.”
“Well, as long as she didn’t ask to learn to dance.”
“Oh,” he said. “She’d learn.”
“Oh would she?”
“She would indeed,” he said. “I’d ask you to go up on the deck now, and dance,” Freddy told me, putting down his glass, “but I’ve decided not to do that anymore. So,” he said, “do you want go up on the deck and stand?”
“I simply adore standing,” I said, taking his hand and helping him up. “Besides,” I said, “Chip never could stand worth a damn.”
We stand still because the trenches of Flanders have killed us, as they have not killed our masters: the captains, the producers and presidents. While they box the ears of their chambermaids and curse at each other, trading amputations, hungering for something to move on from, we — the sailors, the Queens Villagers, the peasant wives, the bartenders – breathe and keep the fields, keep the Theatre.
In another life, Freddy Heatherton would be intact and lately out of Duke, where he captained the cross-country team, same as his father had, before marrying Rita, his wife of twenty-five years. Every Friday night, after returning from his job in the county surveyor’s office in Virginia Beach, we might have danced the Charleston at the union hall till two, and drunk our lime rickies on the porch swing of the seaside cottage my father had scraped up the money to rent, content in knowing the apocalypse had already come and gone away.
I was awakened earlier tonight by a fearsome rending noise, and knew at once that the nails had popped in the hull. Donald McTavish was already in the telegraph room by the time I arrived, cabling at last (that which we’d avoided since Day Two) to Old Dominion that we were in imminent danger of life and limb, and would promptly give up the game whose rules we had, over the course of eight days, invented.
And I went immediately to the stateroom where Mr. Heatherton slept, only he wasn’t asleep. And together, the two of us went to the deck.
“You knew along I was a widow,” I said, trying out a word I’d never even whispered to myself. An honor I’ll have to admit to earning, a badge caked with grief used and worn. Maybe it even had a kind of spindly beauty, but that wouldn’t show, not for me, not yet. “Just not whose.”
Freddy nodded, unsurprisingly. He named every constellation that Chip had known. I, though, who had ever been fortunate to see a single star from the roof of my father’s brownstone in Queens Village, knew those I knew only because I had been in the Alps. And because I hadbeen, I felt the mountains whisper their cold tattoo again on my skin, and thought of their atmosphere which, despite the war below, was crystalline then, and is still, for all I know.
Freddy is not here with me on the bridge now, nor is Donald McTavish, or Cpl. McTavish, as I first knew him and sometimes still refer to him. They stand on the bow with much of the rest of the crew, chewing over our fate. So for the moment I am free to write, and continue the record-keeping that I began nine days ago, in an effort to catalog our social and artistic development aboard, though the journal I now fill will never leave the ship. The harbor shall be its library, for certainly, I have come to believe, there are things that have no real place in the world.
So here, in the last pages, I only speculate how it might be to be boarded, and shipped to shore like so much luggage ourselves. Out the Captain’s picture-window, I see our sister shipPrincess Mary arriving, her black smoke visible before the vessel herself. The case of meager belongings I myself had brought aboard are packed and waiting by the door, and a small selected handful of delicate robes, frocks and accessories, less those which I had offered to Callie the now-ex-chambermaid, a gold and peridot necklace and light cotton frocks and bird-of-paradise feathered fascinators, which if serviceable at Rockaway Beach could certainly find some use in the Philippines, for that’s where she told me she is bound along with young Mr. Toray, to whom she became engaged this morning, and including Mrs. Hartwick’s diamond necklace which I had worn up until three minutes ago, replaced in quite a different suitcase, from whose objects I will strive valiantly to reunite with their rightful owners, and if that proves impossible after exhausting all available resources, I shall ensure that they are well looked-after until the day they can be reclaimed
I open the door of the captain’s cabin. But I can’t help thinking, just for a moment, as I pause and listen to the hull begin to crack asunder and make my way to the rail for the last time (and this, I stress, is whether or not Freddy Heatherton chooses to accompany me) before we reach the pier that I might dive, with an elegance befitting the Old World as it was before I knew it: an English Marchioness yachting like a figurehead on the Channel or a Roman water-nymph dipping toward the banks of the Tiber, to remake beginning at the beach at Rockaway, forever &c, &c. But it’s an idea, only. And even then, it seems that to care is all I will ever know.
Claire is a writer, editor, and ghostwriter with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, over five years' professional experience, and a natural eye for the written word. Her short stories and reviews have appeared in national print and online literary journals, including MAKE, Rain Taxi, and Compass Rose, and her nonfiction in major publications like USA Today, Mashable, The Budget Fashionista, and PopMatters. She was a finalist for the Million Writers Award and the Literary Upstart competition sponsored by The L Magazine. As an editor for Amazon CreateSpace, she helped dozens of writers make their manuscripts razor-sharp and ready to sell.