Come Alive, Part I
(While working on 88 I started thinking about things, and this story began taking shape in my mind. Rather than put it off I started work on what you see here. I’ll work on both stories this week, and I may revise some of the things you read here. Anyway, I hope you enjoy…A)
Henry Taggart wasn’t exactly what you’d consider a sympathetic character, at least you might not think so until somewhere near the end of his story. Most people he worked with, and certainly almost everyone he knew, understood that he was a bright man, even a very talented man. At times he attracted a certain following, those hangers-on and serial pretenders who gravitate, like moths to a flame, to other people’s money. And, years later, and quite predictably, when Taggart dropped out and disappeared from the cocktail circuit, very few noticed or commented on his departure. It might also be fair to say that he was soon forgotten, but perhaps that’s the type of decision we should put off…for now…at least until we know him better.
Taggart grew up in Newport Beach, California, his father was a lawyer, his mother a physician. By the time he was in junior high school his parents had stepped up to a waterfront house on Lido Isle; the Balboa Bay Club was just across the water and Doris Day lived, literally, next door. His father had a Swan 41 tied up at the dock just outside their living room, and Taggart learned to sail on her when he was of an impressionable age. His father campaigned the boat a few times, usually in local yacht club races but twice in PORC series races, aka the Pacific Ocean Racing Conference, which included races to Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan. After he graduated from high school, in Newport Beach, he was the assigned navigator on his second Transpac Race, from LA to Honolulu, and his father’s boat placed third in class.
It is, perhaps, relevant to mention these things if only because they have a certain bearing on the events in question, those which we’ll come to in short order, but the one thing that you should keep in mind as we move along is that Henry Taggart grew up without a care in the world. His parents were good people, and the Taggart’s lived within the blessings of what most would certainly call the very best of the American Dream. And, perhaps, then some.
If Henry’s father had one flaw it was that he was a pure self-starter, an ambitious man who simply could not relate to anyone not similarly self-reliant. Which was a problem, as it turned out because Henry was not so inclined. Instead, Henry became the joker, the class clown.
He drifted through school, bored to tears, but was never far from a self-deprecating joke. He played football, and did well, too, ending up an all-conference middle linebacker in his senior year, yet his grades were, at best, mediocre. His father had gone to USC and had wanted his son to attend the same school, but that simply wasn’t going to happen. Even UCLA said no, despite his football coach’s intervention on his behalf.
So Henry ended up going to a small college up north, a little college in Menlo Park, California, that existed only to help bring up the grades of scholastic underachievers so that they could transfer to colleges like Stanford or USC. Henry was unimpressed, though at least the little college had a football team, and the small classes would provide a good venue for his practical jokes.
This little school, called Menlo College, also had a four-year business school that was held in high regard around the state, and oddly enough, by the Saudi royal family, who sent their princes to Menlo Park with nauseating regularity. These young men drove Ferraris and Maseratis, while the rest of the mere mortals in the student body was consigned to second-hand Buicks and Datsuns. The less than obvious end result of this dichotomy was that all the good looking girls at the college tended to drape themselves over the arms of Saudi princes. This became a source of dismay for some, but not Henry. He simply looked at these girls as transactional beings, trading their bodies for an otherwise unattainable lifestyle.
Because, for whatever reason, Henry just wasn’t into dating. He liked girls, enjoyed looking at them, and even, occasionally, talking to them, yet he never put two and two together. In case you’re disposed to think that Henry was ‘in the closet,’ no, that simply wasn’t the case. He had a few friends on the football team and made a few in class during his two years there, but nothing ever came from his associations with the girls there.
He transferred to Claremont College, and by then he’d decided he wanted to go into computer science. Keep in mind that this was at a time when Microsoft and Apple Computer did not yet exist, and when computers stored information on huge reel-to-reel tapes. Coincidentally, he met a girl in his first year at Claremont, and he finally did the deed, lost his virginity. It’s also fair to say that Henry was completely unimpressed by the whole thing, but perhaps that’s because he found he’d picked up a raging case of the clap in the aftermath. He decided to focus on his studies after that and found that he enjoyed hard work.
He went to Palo Alto next, to Stanford, still studying computer science. He met two rag-tag developers working nearby and soon hooked up with them; a few years later he was in on the ground floor at Apple. Still, he was bored, if unfulfilled, and an unrealized need to move on grew incessantly.
He moved to Seattle, started working for a company that was creating a page layout program for newspapers and magazines, but he struck out on a new path, went to work on a new product line developing a so-called digital darkroom that could be used on personal computers, and there he met with his first real financial success. Even so, after a few years in Seattle, he found he was bored and felt compelled to move again.
So he joined a special effects company. Special effects for movies, that is, after someone from Stanford recommended him to people at MGM. He moved to Hollywood, which meant he could go home to Newport Beach, but he soon discovered that his father was not immortal, that his father had, in truth, grown old, and was now very frail. This dawning awareness stunned Henry Taggart because, indeed, the sight alone scared him to the point that, for the first time in his life, he became aware of death. How, he wondered, could you run away from that?
So he worked on code most days, compiling and troubleshooting, for the most part, coming up with new ways to create realistic effects, yet he wasn’t in on the artistic side of the business because, really, he had no interest in art…or even the movies that his company brought to life.
His father called him one Friday and asked that he come down to Newport, and he did as soon as he finished up a minor project, which meant sometime Saturday morning.
His mother was sick, as it turned out. Very sick. Breast cancer. Actually, her second bout with the disease, which surprised Henry because he’d never heard she had it the first time around. The idea that death stalked everyone began to consume his waking thoughts, then his dreams – and, eventually, his nightmares.
His mother was an internist and so knew the score. When her cancer was staged at level four she simply discontinued treatment and retired from her practice, then went home to spend what was left of her time with the only people who mattered, her family. It was, unfortunately, simply too much to expect Henry to spend much time with her.
Which turned out to be the case, though he dutifully went home when his father called and asked him to come down for the weekend. If Henry had been in a position to talk about his feelings he might have said that he was most afraid of his father’s manifest deterioration, and not long after his mother passed he learned that his father had inoperable prostate cancer, and that it had spread into the spine before it was detected.
So, within the space of a year, Henry Taggert lost his mother and his father. He had no other family. None. Anywhere. And for the first few months that one simple fact didn’t concern him the least.
But, for the first time in his life, Henry Taggart came to understand that he was utterly alone, and in time he found the sensation annoying, though perhaps just mildly so, then, over time, somewhat more bothersome. First, he’d had to decide what to do with his parent’s house, which after some hand-wringing he sold, and then what to do with the rest of the holdings, which were, as you might expect, substantial. Oddly enough, working through all these duties only increased his sense of isolation.
Another odd thing about Henry? He was frugal, always had been. He lived in modest apartments everywhere he ventured. He drove simple cars, like beige Chevy sedans with vinyl bench seats, front and rear. His clothes were off the rack, and usually from a cheap department store in a mall; same with his shoes. His one extravagance was running shoes because every evening he ran at least five miles. Until his knees began to fail, as these things surely do.
He noticed one morning that his hands were trembling. A week later other people noticed they were shaking, sometimes jerking violently. One of the co-founders of the company he worked for drove him to UCLA; within an hour a team of neurologists was testing him for Parkinson’s. The results were positive. He was told his symptoms would, more than likely, remain mild, and therefore controllable, for several years. As long as he took his medications.
Suddenly he wanted to go home, to Newport Beach, to talk with his father. But his father was gone now, wasn’t he? Instead, his friend drove him home; someone from the office drove his car to the apartment complex where he lived now, and he went into his apartment and for the first time in his life he really looked around, really took stock of his situation.
There were no paintings on the wall. There was a record player sitting on a shelf on a mail-order bookcase, and the thing had been state-of-the-art…twenty-five years ago…but that hardly mattered because he’d not bought a record in at least a decade, maybe two. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out some kind of soda and found stuff to make another kind of sandwich, then he went to his bedroom, sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the TVs remote and turned it on. Some kind of game show. He turned to another channel and saw Captain James T Kirk dressed like an Indian, holding a dying squaw as she lay dying, and that was just too much to bear. He flipped to another channel, and another – then turned the TV off, frustrated.
He went to the living room and ate his sandwich, then went to the bookcase. He’d picked up a few books from his father’s shelves before the estate movers cleaned out the old house, and he looked at a few of them now.
They were all about sailing. And not just sailing in general, but about cruising. Taking a long trip to nowhere. Maybe a years-long trip. And they all seemed to be about cruising in Scandinavia…Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. He picked one and pulled it from the shelf, popped the top on his soda, and went to the sofa. He sat and started to read, and he found that if he put the book on a pillow instead of holding it in his hand the trembling wasn’t nearly so annoying.
He read and read, and at one point he looked up and it was four in the morning. When the sun came up a few hours later he closed the book and thought about what he’d just read. He opened the next book and found a piece of neatly folded stationery from his father’s office; on this paper, he found a proposed itinerary for sailing around the Baltic; when he looked at his father’s precise handwriting he felt an overwhelming sadness, and more than just a little regret. He’d always worshipped his father but, he realized in that moment, he’d never really known the man. Let alone understood what made him tick.
He opened the next book in his little stack and found another piece of precisely folded paper, and here he found more notes. What items to take on the trip. What charts he’d need. Things he’d need to learn before he could go.
In the next book, he found an analysis of the ideal boat for a trip like this, premised on starting from New England so that a trans-Atlantic crossing could be included in the itinerary.
He sat back, lost inside a passing thought…‘What would it have been like to actually do that with dad?’ Then he found himself thinking about such a trip and, logically, he asked himself why his father hadn’t tried.
And the answer he came up with was simple enough.
Because he’d disappeared from his father’s life, and when the time came to make such a trip his father was all alone, and such a trip was beyond the scale of his failing health.
And Henry Taggart had a hard time digesting that shard of glass.
He went online and found that there was a boat show in Newport, Rhode Island going on for the next two weeks, so he booked a flight to Boston and packed a bag, then made a hotel reservation. He called an airport shuttle and made it out to LAX with a few hours to spare, so he had some coffee and a bowl of chili. Which sent his stomach into convulsions. He drank a bottle of pink stuff and walked onto the airplane trailing a noxious plume of methane-like gases, plopped-down in seat 2A and promptly fell asleep.
“Are you alright, sir?”
“What?” He opened his eyes, looked up, saw a flight attendant looking at him, and she appeared concerned. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You’re shaking a lot. Are you cold?”
“No, I just need to take some medicine. May I have some water, please?”
He turned, looked around the cabin and saw several people looking his way. Some were shaking their head, others looked at him with something akin to sympathy in their eyes.
‘I guess I’d better get used to that…’ he thought. ‘Because I’m the proverbial stranger in a strange land now.’
He picked up his bags at the carousel and found a shuttle to Newport; by the time he arrived at his hotel it was dark – and he was exhausted. His hands were shaking and he read the directions on the bottle of pills again; time to dose-up, he saw. He went out on the terrace and looked at the waterfront below, saw hundreds of sailboats festooned with flags and posters filled with feature after feature.
How many years had it been? Since he’d been sailing? Twenty-five? Thirty?
“This is insane,” he said to the night. “But why does this feel so right?”
After two days of solid looking, he settled on one boat, a thirty seven foot Nauticat. She was made in Finland, built like a tank and had both an exterior cockpit as well as an inside steering station. There were two heads, three sleeping cabins – though one was ridiculously small – and the workmanship on display, especially the interior woodwork, was beyond stunning.
The dealer had seen him crawling through the boat more than once, but he’d also seen the shaking hands – and so dismissed the man as a wannabe, and long past his prime.
“Is this your best price?” Henry asked.
“Yessir.” the salesman replied.
“I’ve seen other reps here with boat show pricing. You have anything like that?”
“You know, if you were a serious buyer perhaps we could talk about that…”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
“Your hands. You have Parkinson’s, right?”
“So, you won’t be sailing much.”
“And why not?”
“Have you done much sailing, sir?”
“Two Transpacs and a bunch of ocean racing on a Swan 41. Does that count?”
“I see. What are your plans?”
“Cross to the Baltic, take the canals through Sweden, then hit the fjords in Norway, back to Denmark, then through canals to Amsterdam, then Paris, then the canals to the Med.”
“Well, with the shallow keep option on this one, this is the boat you’d want for that trip.”
“I came to that conclusion about an hour ago.”
“When would you be leaving?”
“Probably late April, early May, next year. That would give me a few months to get to know her, get her fitted out.”
“So, you’re telling me you’re actually going to do this?”
The dealer shook his head. “Ya know, I think I’ll have to check with my lawyer, see if I’d have any liability for selling a boat to someone like you.”
“Fine. Do it. In the meantime, what’s your best price for this thing?”
The dealer shook his head again. “If I knock fifty off, can you do four hundred?”
Henry pulled out his checkbook and wrote the check, handed it over to the dealer…
…who bunched his lips and nodded. He slipped the check into his wallet and looked at the lunatic standing there – shaking like a leaf. “We have some paperwork to do…”
“Ya know what? I’ve talked to a lawyer here, put him on retainer. Here’s his card. You get your stuff together and get it to him. He’s going to handle documentation and registration.”
“The electronics on this boat are decent, but there are some upgrades you might want to consider.”
Taggart opened a file folder and handed the man a list of items he wanted installed. “Think you can handle this stuff?”
The dealer looked over the list. “No problem. I can have everything installed in a week, maybe ten days. Everything but that Icom SSB. Not sure about inventory on those.”
“I’ll just go over to the Icom booth and buy one. Mind if I do it that way?”
“I’ll pick up a life raft, too. Can you handle installing a hydrostatic release cradle?”
“For a Winslow?”
“Sure, not a problem.”
“Okay. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Henry came back an hour later, and he noted the red “sold” sticker on the boat…his boat, now…and he smiled at that. He thought his dad would like his choice, too.
After the show began closing down for the night he stepped aboard and sat behind the wheel. He sighted up the mast, visually checked the tension of her stays and shrouds. The electronics would all have to go, better displays would need to be fitted, more capable radios too. He walked to the bow, looked down into the water and imagined his little ship cutting a fine wake through a boisterous sea, then he turned and looked up into the night sky, spotting the primary navigations stars with ease.
“Alright, Dad. You’d better get ready, because we’re really going to do this.”
“Oh,” he heard the dealer say, “is your father coming with you?”
“Damn right he is,” Henry Taggart said, grabbing the forestay with his shaking hand.
“What are you going to name her?”
He looked up at the stars and wanted to ask his dad, but then he thought of his father’s Swan. Her name was Bandit, but that wasn’t quite the right name for this new girl.
“Time Bandit,” he said – finally. “I think that fits, don’t you?”
He opened his logbook to the next page and grabbed a pencil as it rolled by, then he looked at the GPS…
“Let’s see. Position North 59 degrees, 57’, 15.9. West 16 degrees, 20’ 08.18. Outside air temp 28 Fahrenheit, Barometer 29.6 and falling.” He looked at his watch and duly noted the time, 0830 hrs GMT, then noted the sea temp at the top of the page. “Still 34 degrees Fahrenheit.” He went to the wheel and looked off to the north, saw the line of icebergs still about four miles away and he nodded. He’d programmed the radar to make a scan every five minutes and sound an alarm if any bergs slipped inside a two mile guard zone, and so far everything had worked perfectly.
He went to the companionway hatch and slid it back, then he went up into the cockpit. “Sails drawing well,” he said to the wind, then he clipped his harness onto the jack-lines and made a quick survey of the shrouds and stays before he made his way aft to the Hydrovane self-steering rig. He checked tension and confirmed their heading was still accurate relative to the apparent wind angle, then he went below again and poured another cup of hot water. He picked a breakfast tea and tossed the bag into the water, then stepped down into the galley, opened the oven door, checked his banana bread and figured it was done. He took it out and set it in the sink to let it cool – just as the radar alarm went off…!
He stepped up to the inside steering station and looked at the display, then peered out into the fog…
“Yes, there you are,” he said as he looked at the aircraft carrier emerging from the fog about 2 miles ahead. He’d have to alter course hard to the right, so he went topside and disconnected the wind-vane self-steering rig, and then, once back at the wheel, he turned on the autopilot and changed course to 90 degrees magnetic. She was falling off the wind now so he let out the sails a little, adjusting them both with the push of a button, then he hardened up a little, to about 85 degrees and a few minutes later the ship passed about a mile to port…
…then came all her escorts…
…cruisers, frigates, a couple of supply ships…and then a submarine surfaced a few hundred yards ahead and a little to port and he watched the sub’s captain appear on the conning tower and he waved as they passed. Then he saw the captain speaking into a microphone…
“You need anything?” he heard through some sort of speaker on the sub.
As he’d had a loud-hailer installed he replied: “Got any dancin’ girls handy?”
“Sorry, we ran out last night.”
“The story of my life.”
Then he watched the captain wave once again and a moment later the sub disappeared beneath the waves. Five minutes later he was alone again; only the slowest support vessels remained on his radar screen…and a few minutes later even they were gone.
And these were the first signs of life he’d seen in 2,300 miles, after not quite three weeks at sea.
“Ya know, a dancing girl would feel pretty good right about now,” he said to no one in particular, then he walked down below and sliced some bread to go with his tea.
Not quite a week later he made his approach to Bergen, Norway, and he called customs on the VHF; they sent out a boat to guide him to the customs dock. An hour later he was checked into Norway and cleared to make his way into the center of town. A few minutes later he was tied off a few hundred feet from the old fish market, surrounded by what looked like thousands of people.
He was docked stern to the quay so the American flag flying off his stern was now visible to everyone passing by, and this soon caused quite a stir.
“Did you come all the way from America?” one little boy asked, holding his mother’s hand as they gawked at Time Bandit.
“Sure did,” Taggart said, grinning.
“He must be cold, Mama. Look! See how his hands shake?”
He turned away, set about washing the deck with fresh water, then he pulled the sails down from their furlers and bagged them. He wanted to take them up to the sailmakers, have them inspected and cleaned, but it was too late to do that today. He pulled out a chamois and rinsed the windows around the wheelhouse, then he dried them, doing his best to remove any spots that formed. When he’d finished topsides he went below and put on some real clothes and gathered two huge bags of laundry and hauled them topsides, then he looked at his watch. “Too late,” he sighed. “Add that to the list.”
He hopped ashore and walked over to an ATM and grabbed some cash, then made his way to the fish market and had a plate a smoked salmon and grilled shrimp before he set out walking.
A few minutes into his walk he saw a physicians office, noted they were open and went inside.
“Can I help you?” a young woman said in clear English.
“Do I really look like an American?”
“Yes, you do.”
“What is it? How can you tell?”
“The New York Yankees baseball cap. Dead giveaway.”
“So, what can I do for you?”
“I just have some medications I need to get refilled.”
“I hate to ask, but do you have insurance?”
“Not anything beyond my US policy.”
She handed him a brochure. “This is information on a medical insurance policy good throughout the EU, Norway, Sweden, all of Scandinavia, really. If you try to fill these the cost will be exorbitant, but with this policy they’ll cost almost nothing.”
“It’s medical insurance, too? Is it any good?”
“Yes, very. You can sign up online, make your payment, and it will be good within a matter of hours. If you’ll give me your prescriptions I’ll get the forms ready for you to take to the pharmacy, and you can pick them up in the morning?”
He smiled. “Sounds good. Do you know where I could find a laundry? I’ve got two huge bags to get done.”
“Are you wanting to do it yourself, or have someone do it for you?”
“It’s too much for me to handle, I’m afraid.”
“In that case, there’s a laundry that will do it for you up that alley, and they are open all night. They do hotel laundry, that sort of thing, but all the fishing boats that come in use them too.”
“You, Madam, are a lifesaver. Many thanks.”
“Would you mind if I take your blood pressure?”
“Good. Please, be seated. I’ll be right back.”
She came back with a little rolling cart loaded with everything she needed, then she took his BP, temperature, and counted out his pulse. He also noted she was a physician, and not the receptionist or a nurse.
“Your pressure is a little low. Are you taking medications for your Parkinson’s?”
Of course, he’d not mentioned he had Parkinson’s. Was it really so fucking obvious all the fucking time?
“Yes, here they are,” he said, handing over all his bottles.
She wrote everything down, scribbled his name down too. “What’s your date of birth?”
He told her.
“So, you’re – what – fifty eight?”
“And did you just come across from America?”
“How many in your crew?”
She put her pencil down and looked up at him. “Excuse me? Did you say you’re alone?”
“I think so. In fact, I’m pretty damn certain I was alone the whole way.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but did anyone advise against your doing this?”
“The list is long, Doc. Too long to recite right now, anyway.”
“I see. So you are, like, a crazy person?”
“Probably so. But I won’t tell if you won’t.”
She smiled. “If you don’t mind, I’m closing up now but I’d like to see your boat. Would that be alright?”
“She’s not the cleanest thing right now, but if you don’t mind, I don’t mind.”
The physician went back into the office and turned off all the lights, then she led him to the front door and locked it behind them.
“I’m down by the fish market,” he said.
“Lucky you. You’re early in the season. Two weeks from now you won’t be able to moor this close to the city.”
“I may gain ten pounds eating smoked salmon, too.”
“You could stand to gain ten pounds, Mr Taggart. Twenty pounds would be even better.”
“Music to my ears. I saw a five pound lobster up there with my name all over it. Well, here we are.”
“Time Bandit? So, are you stealing time?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Every chance I get.”
She nodded, then with the grace of a gazelle she leapt over to the swim platform and stepped up to the aft deck.
He did so rather less gracefully.
“Well, follow me,” he said as he led her down the companionway and into Bandit’s cocoon-like interior.
“You need to get some padding on these corners,” she said, pointing at the dining table. “Where’s the galley?”
“Down there,” he said, pointing. “Mind me asking, but is this some kind of official inspection?”
“Sort of. As a physician, I’m required to report any vessels with potentially unsafe operators. It is a coast guard requirement.”
“Well, please take into consideration I just sailed three thousand miles across the Atlantic, without any trouble I might add.”
“Frankly, Mr. Taggart, I am amazed. Anyway, you needn’t worry. I’m not going to write you up for any violations…if that’s why you’re frowning.”
“Well, I feel like you kinda tricked me…into coming down here.”
“Ah. I see. Well, it seems it falls to me, but we have an old custom here. Any sailor crossing the Atlantic, well, the first person you meet has to buy your first dinner here. Lucky me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Well then, let’s go eat some lobster.”
“I hate to say it, Mr Taggart, but I can probably afford a hot dog. We don’t get paid as much as your American doctors.”
“Nobody gets paid as much as our doctors. Not even our doctors.”
“What does that mean?”
“The insurance companies make all the money in America. Lawyers suing doctors come in second.”
“And you know this how?”
“My mother. She was an internist. My father was, of course, a lawyer.”
“Ah, so you would know.”
He led her back up to the aft deck, hopped down to the swim platform then across to the pier. She followed but missed a step on landing and started to fall over backward…
…and he reached out, grabbed her hand, kept her from taking a swim in the icy water.
“Thanks!” she managed to say as she grimaced.
“Are you okay?”
“I think I twisted my ankle. Could you give me a hand?”
He helped her up to the fish market and she took a seat at a table close to an outdoor heater. “What would you like?” he asked.
“You decide. Just tell me the price before you buy anything!”
He went back to the same vendor and picked out a nice three pound lobster and an assortment of smoked fish. He pointed to their table and paid the bill. “Could you bring it over, please? She’s twisted an ankle.”
“Is that Dr. Bauer with you?”
“I think so, yes. And – maybe a couple of beers? And keep the change.”
“So, I see you paid. You have broken a tradition thousands of years old!”
“You pull my leg any harder and you’re going to break it.”
“Pulling my leg? Joking with me?”
“Oh, yes, I see. Tell me, are you married?”
“No, not now.”
“Not really. So, you are divorced as well?”
“No. I never married.”
She looked puzzled. “Are you gay?” she asked flatly.
“No, but I do tend to be on the happy side.”
“What? Oh, yes…happy, gay…I get it. You don’t take many things seriously, do you?”
“As infrequently as I can,” he smiled. “And it drives people mad.”
“And you enjoy doing that? Driving people mad, that is?”
“I think I am going to need to ice this ankle,” she said, frowning.
“Yes, and getting worse.”
“Where can we get an x-ray?”
“You have other things to do. I can manage.”
“We have an old custom where I come from. When we cross the Atlantic and then break a lady’s leg, we help them to the hospital.”
“I see. I had no idea Americans were so, what is the word…?”
“Yes, maybe so. We can at least finish dinner, can we not?”
“If you can manage, sure. I’d hate for this lobster to have died in vain.”
“You are a comedian, no? A stand-up? Is that what they call it? Like Robin Williams?”
“My hero. Don’t take his name in vain.”
She shook her head, ate some smoked whitefish. “Where to from here?”
“Reine, up in the…”
“Yes, a beautiful spot. Then north?”
“No, back around to Stockholm, then into the canals.”
“You are mad. You need at least two other people on board to help with the lines, if not they won’t let you transit.”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to find some adventurous hippies in backpacks and Birkenstocks.”
She shook her head. “Nice to have a plan, I guess. So, then to Gothenburg. Where to from there?”
“Copenhagen. Then inland, to Amsterdam. I want to be in Paris for Christmas.”
“That’s going to be quite a trip. I would have thought sharing such an experience would have made it even more meaningful.”
“Well, no one signed up, despite offers of hard cash…” he said, grinning again.
“You are very good at what you do, Mr. Taggart.”
“And what’s that?”
“Pushing people away. I wonder, are you aware you are doing so?”
“So, you don’t like people very much?”
“I liked my father. No one else has ever measured up, so I figured, ya know, why bother?”
“Well, I’m done. You?”
“Yes, I’ve had enough.” She pulled out a cell phone and made a call to what sounded like a baby sitter, then she called for a taxi – which pulled up within moments. He helped her to the door and she quickly pulled it to. “I’ll not need anymore assistance, please. I’ll see you in the morning, or when you get your insurance matters settled.”
“Are you sure I can’t help?”
She shook her head and the taxi drove off into the new city, and he stood there for a while, feeling kind of lost. It had felt good to talk to another human being, he thought for a moment. ‘But not that good…’
He went back to the Bandit and got his laundry, then trundled back into the old town and dropped it off – with a promise to pick it up first thing in the morning. Suddenly quite tired, he walked back to his little cocoon and dropped into bed, falling into a deep sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Sun slanting through an overhead hatch woke him, and he looked at his watch, saw it was almost noon and then realized his bladder was urgently calling for attention. Standing there, he realized he hadn’t even taken his shoes off, and looking in the mirror he saw a frightful thing staring back; the creature standing there with curly white hair standing at odd angles, and with more white stubble on its face than was considered polite. He went to the chart table and made sure the water pump was on and fired up the water heater, then he made coffee and opened his laptop. He connected to the recommended wifi channel and went to the URL on the insurance brochure, read over the terms and conditions and signed up for an annual policy, paid for it then printed out all the necessary policy information.
He drank his coffee in the shower and just managed to shave without slicing his neck open. His hands were shaking badly, he saw, then he realized he’d missed his late night and early morning doses and cursed at the world. Once dressed and medicated he went topsides and grabbed the sail bags and hauled them shoreside; he hailed a taxi and, after giving the driver an address for the sail loft, he sat back and took a deep breath. He saw the clinic he’d gone to yesterday, even thought he saw the physician inside, but he almost didn’t want to return. Almost didn’t want to see her again. Almost.
He had the taxi wait while he dropped off the sails, then he returned to the laundry and picked up bags and bags of clean clothes. It was after three in the afternoon by the time he finished putting his things away, time for his next dose and long past time to return to the little clinic. The idea of eating fish again made his stomach queasy so he made his way topsides and walked up into the old town. He found a Thai place and had a curry, then – with a sigh – set off for the clinic.
She was just finishing up with a patient when he came in, so he sat and waited. She was walking alright, then he noticed a little walking cast.
“You’re running a little late today, I see,” she said with a pleasant enough smile. “Did you find sleep last night?”
“It found me, and it didn’t leave until noon.”
She laughed a little. “You looked exhausted; I’m glad you rested. How do you feel today?”
He shrugged. “Still tired. How’s the ankle?”
“Not too bad. Come on in,” she said, leading him to an exam room.
“You don’t have a nurse?”
“Not yet. There is a shortage of nurses here. Actually, a shortage of help, period.”
“That everyone is employed?”
“That tends to not be a problem here,” she said as she picked up a stethoscope. “Shirt off, please.” She listened to his heart and lungs, then palpated his neck and under his arms. She found a lump and felt around the area a few times…
“That hurts,” he said, and she nodded.
“Have you noticed anything different lately? More tired than usual, any odd pains or numbness?”
He pointed to his left breast. “Yeah. A little numb, right under the nipple.”
She palpated his breast, pausing a couple of times to feel his left armpit again, then she stepped back. “Pants and underwear down, then turn around and face the table, bend over…”
“Oh, Hell, you’re not gonna…”
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
“Payback time, I see. Please, be gentle. It’s my first time…”
Her greasy finger slipped in and she felt his prostate. “Feels okay,” was all she said, then: “Go ahead and get your clothes on.”
While he dressed she wrote on his chart, then she filled out more forms before she went out front and got on the telephone. He heard her chattering away and decided to come out to the reception area.
“We are going to take a little ride, Mr Taggart. Up to the hospital.”
A taxi pulled up and she got him in the back, then walked around and got in beside him.
“I’m not even going to ask,” he managed to say.
She checked him in, walked with him to the lab where they drew vials and vials of blood, then she walked him to radiology.
“You’re going to have a mammogram,” she told him, “then an ultrasound. I’ll meet you right here when you are complete.”
“Finished,” he said, correcting her.
“Ah. Yes, just so.”
“Did you say mammogram?”
“You do, uh, realize that I don’t have, you know, breasts?”
“Sorry, that is not exactly the case. You may find the procedure a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t take long.”
“You’re, like, kidding…right?”
She smiled and walked off, back towards the lab, then a tech walked him back to a complex, dimly lit room filled with strange looking contraptions.
In heavily accented English, the girl told him to stand “Right here!” and to lift his left arm “Just so!” She positioned what felt like a cold plastic clamp of some sort over his left breast and shoved as much tissue into the device as she could, then she closed the clamp…
“Goddam!” he yelled. “Could you POSSIBLY make this goddam thing any more painful?”
“Hold your breath, and don’t move, please.”
The machine whirred and clacked, and he broke out in a little sweat.
She came back and released the clamp, repositioned him and re-engaged the device.
“Do you enjoy doing this?” he snarled. “Is this, like, payback for every bad date you’ve ever been on?”
Without saying a word, she repositioned him once again and he began sweating profusely, and then, when he thought she couldn’t possibly be enjoying the experience more, she came in and told him they were going to do the other breast now.
Bug-eyed, he thought frantically how he wanted to protest that decision, but now the girl had an assistant on hand and he realized further commentary on his part simply wasn’t going to help.
He howled when they first clamped his right breast; the third time he felt like he was going to pass out, then, with his shirt still off, one of the girls led him to another dimly lit room, this one with a table for him to lie down on. Then…goo on the chest, the ultrasound wand pressed into his breasts, then along a line to his armpits. A half hour later, with his shirt on and his pride hanging somewhere south of his knees, he walked out to the waiting room.
“How do you feel?”
“Like I could tear your head off and toss your body to a pack of wild dogs.”
She smiled. “Let’s go get some coffee.”
“I haven’t eaten today. Think we could get something other than fish around here?”
“Probably best not to eat right now.”
“Let’s wait to hear what the radiologist has to say, hmm?”
“You do know that you are scaring the ever-lovin’ crap out of me, don’t you?”
Again, the noncommittal smile as she led him to what had to be the hospital cafeteria. “Have a seat,” she told him. “I’ll get you something.”
She came back a few minutes later with some sort of hydrating solution and told him to drink it, then her name was paged and she went to a phone on the wall by the attendant and spoke for a minute or so, nodding once, then shaking her head.
“Okay, come with me please.”
“We need to discuss your results.”
“We do? Well, how nice of you to include me in the discussion.”
“Please, Mr. Taggart. This is going to be difficult enough as is. Stop with the levity, okay?”
“Hey, you handle your world your way. Let me handle mine the way I want, yes?”
“I’m sorry. You are correct.”
Even in Norwegian, the words Surgery and Oncology looked vaguely familiar, and even the surgeon looked the part: fair-skinned and blond, his modestly cultivated face full of freckles, and, of course, he possessed a very calm demeanor.
“We are going to need to go into your left breast, perhaps also through the lymph nodes to your left arm,” the surgeon said. “Normally we’d do this in the early morning, but I understand you’ve not eaten today?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well then, perhaps we should think of moving you to surgery right now.”
“Excuse me, but that won’t work. I’ve got to secure my boat, take care of things there before I can do anything like that. Anyway, would someone please tell me what the devil is going on?”
The surgeon looked at the radiologist’s report. “It would appear you have a malignancy in your left breast, and probably a few lymph nodes are already involved. Waiting is not something you want to do, Mr. Taggart. Am I making myself clear? How long would it take you to secure your boat?”
“I don’t know. An hour?”
“Dr. Bauer? Can you accompany him, see that he finds his way around town without difficulty?”
“Yes, of course. Come on, Henry.”
Sitting in the back of another taxi he felt detached from his body as they bounced along the cobblestone streets. “Is this really happening?” he sighed, and he didn’t resist when she took his hand, then he realized he was crying and looked away, wiped his face as he looked at his reflection in the window. ‘I don’t know you, do I?’ he thought, then he realized that no, he really didn’t know the person in the glass anymore. He was a stranger now. Sick, and, apparently, getting sicker. He shook his head, realized she was still holding his hand and he liked the way she felt. Her skin on his. Simple.
He took her back to the Bandit, this time after walking down a long ramp – forgoing the obligatory hop across the water from the wharf – and he talked her through the ship’s systems in case he needed to be away for more than a day or two. He packed a little overnight bag, underwear, toothbrush, those things he might need for an overnight stay, then they walked the long way up to the street. Yet another taxi back to the hospital, and she walked him to admitting and he passed over his new insurance papers, his passport, his US medical insurance papers just for good measure, and after the clerk finished with them Bauer led him to the waiting room outside of surgery.
“I’ll see you in the recovery room,” Bauer said, smiling just a little.
“Why are you doing this?” Taggart asked.
“Nobody should be alone at a time like this. It has fallen on me to be here for you.”
He nodded. “It was the least you could do, right? After making me pay for dinner last night?”
She smiled, squeezed his hand, then watched him disappear into the pre-op area before she took a taxi back to her clinic.
He woke in a haze, an opiate fueled haze of blissful comfort. It was, he realized, a little like sitting in an inner-tube and floating down a river on a sunny day. Pleasant, care free, a lazy day.
Then he saw Bauer and it all came back in a rush.
His throat was sore, his chest felt heavy, and his left arm wouldn’t move. This last realization bothered him most of all, because he’d need that arm to steer…
She saw he was awake and stood, came to his bedside and took his hand again.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he croaked, his mouth dry, his voice ragged.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”
He smiled. “Ah, at last. A kindred spirit.”
And she smiled too. “I’ve been to the boat. All is well down there.”
“Good. Do you know how long I’ll be tied up in here?”
“I should let your oncologist talk about your options before you consider that.”
“You’re a physician, no? You can’t tell me?”
“I could, but I’d rather not.”
“Humor me. Go ahead, I can take it,” he said, grinning.
“Jokes might not help today, Henry. You might not want to push aside the feelings you’ll have so easily.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Chemo? Radiation? All those delightful things?”
She nodded. “At the very least.”
She smiled, shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Well, Hell. ‘I don’t know’ sounds very bad indeed.”
Again she just smiled, though she squeezed his hand again.
“Suppose I just check out of this hotel and take off. How long would I have? Enough to make it to Paris for Christmas?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Yeow! Well, now you’ve got my complete attention.”
“This is not my area of specialization, Henry. You really should talk with your oncologist about your options.”
He yawned, his eyes watered and she wiped them dry. “Would you like some ice to chew on?”
“All things considered, I’d rather have a beer.”
She smiled, shook her head and nodded at an unseen nurse; a minute later she used a spoon to feed him a few pieces of crushed ice, then wiped his forehead with a damp washcloth. The nurse came in a few minutes later and injected morphine into his IV, and within seconds he was adrift on the river again, marveling at how good the sun felt beating down on his shoulders.
Two days later he – finally – crawled out of bed, and he stood before a mirror when his nurse changed the bandages covering his surgical wound. He looked at the broad, circular cut under his left breast with a curious mixture of dread and outright horror, but the hideously long incision from there to his armpit looked more like something from a slasher flick. When he saw the drain dangling there he started to feel light-headed and asked to sit down.
A little later another nurse came in and wrapped his upper body in a clear plastic wrap, then she helped him walk to the shower. He sat in there and let the water beat down on his head for what felt like hours, but nothing seemed to wash away the sight of those incisions.
His oncologist wanted to start chemotherapy immediately, but he had put her off. When he explained why she shook her head…
“There is a chance we can help you beat this, you know?” she said.
“It’s not much of a chance,” he countered. “And I’m not sure I want to spend the time I have left vomiting and watching my hair fall out.”
“We have new medicines that keep most of these things from happening…”
“And I have places to go, things I want to do.”
The oncologist knew she wasn’t going to change his mind, and at last she let her guard down. “You know, I think if I was in your position I might do the same thing.”
“No buts, Mr. Taggart. In a way, your position makes perfect sense to me, and I’ll not stand in your way. It is, after all is said and done, your life. So it is your choice to make.”
“Okay. Can you give me an idea how long I might have, and how active I can be?”
“I could, but you won’t like what I have to say.”
He shrugged, then winced as lightning bolts of hot pain tore through his upper chest.
“You’ll want to heal before you try to sail again. Maybe a month, perhaps six weeks, but you’ll need to take things carefully, slowly.”
“Look, all I really want to know is this. Will I make it to Christmas?”
She shrugged. “That’s about six months away. You might, but by then you’ll be in a very precarious state.”
“Define precarious, please.”
“Very close to death.”
He nodded, felt a cold vice gripping his soul. “Well, that’s clear enough.”
“Hey. I asked, didn’t I?”
“Dr. Bauer tells me you plan on sailing up to the Lofotens. Reine, I think she said?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“It’s a beautiful trip. I envy you. But, why Paris?”
“Oh, when I was a kid my parents took me there for Christmas. I was seven years old the first time we went.”
“You went more than once?”
“Every year, all the way through high school.”
“I see. Yes, I think I can understand that.”
“Paris feels like going home to me, I think. Anyway, maybe completing the circle is a better way of looking at it.”
“You know, for an American that seems pretty unusual.”
“I had unusual parents.”
She nodded. “Well, I guess that’s that. There’s nothing more I can say, really.”
“Did I buy some time, doc? Doing this surgery?”
“A little, yes. Will it be enough? I honestly don’t know the answer to that, Mr. Taggart.”
He took a deep breath, winced at the pain and cursed when he saw his hands shaking. “Time for my meds,” he said.
“I’ll get your nurse.”
“Thanks. Thanks for everything.” She nodded and walked from his room, and he did not see her stop and lean against the wall, gasping for breath or see her crying.
Dr. Bauer came by before lunch, just in time to see his latest reaction to Norwegian hospital food.
“It must be a universal law. All hospital food must, by law, suck.”
“Yes, it’s our secret weapon. How else could we get patients to leave so quickly?”
He nodded as he looked at the stuff on his tray, in the end pushing it away. “They tell me I can leave in the morning. How’s the Bandit?”
“Oh, just fine. My son is onboard, cleaning up a little.”
“Your son? I didn’t know…”
“He loves boats,” she said quickly. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. How old is he?”
“Fourteen, going on forty.”
He grinned. “Ah yes, I know the type well. Tell me, is he as sarcastic as I am?”
“Not yet, but give him time. Anyway, I will come for you in the morning around ten. Sorry, but I must get to the clinic now.”
And then she was gone.
His dreams were terrible that night. Nightmares punctuated by flailing interludes of restless turning, and it didn’t help that ‘night’ seemed to last a little less than two hours. By four in the morning he was sitting up on the side of the bed, doing the prescribed exercises that would, hopefully, help get his left arm back into the game. Ever since high school he’d lifted weights, and running every day had kept his legs brutally strong, and he felt like he the reserves of strength necessary to recuperate while sailing Bandit…but time would tell. Thoughts like these played with him, toyed with his sense of himself until he began to question everything he’d ever done.
Nurses came in and drew blood, then one stayed behind and wrapped him in plastic again, this time showing him how he would need to do it by himself once he was back on board, and once again he sat under the hot water, lost in thought.
‘I can do this.’
‘I can’t handle wiping my own ass right now. How on earth can I take the Bandit back out to sea?’
‘Maybe I should just put her on the market, go back to California…’
But making it to Paris for Christmas, one more Christmas, still seemed the best thing to do, and sitting there under that endless stream of hot water, he just knew he could handle his little ship and get her there.
A heap of gelatinous yellow muck, something that was supposed to approximate scrambled eggs, arrived after his shower, then that pretty oncologist dropped by once again.
She pointed at his tray: “What in God’s name is that?”
“Scrambled eggs. Want some?”
She leaned over, looked at the pile of yellow goo, almost studying it before she backed away in disgust. “Well, no surprises in your lab work, no new infection, anyway, so I’ll sign your discharge orders. Do you have any questions for me while you’re here?”
“Not unless you can transplant my brain into a new body.”
“Sorry. We’re all out of fresh bodies this week.”
“Ain’t it the truth.”
“So. It is off to the Lofoten Islands for you? When will you leave?”
“I’d imagine a week or so.”
“That is much to soon. Don’t do it.”
“Where is your boat moored?”
“Tied up almost right in front of the fish market, down in the old town.”
“Nice. Would you mind if I dropped by sometime? See how you’re doing?”
“No, not at all – I’ll look forward to it.”
She smiled. “Ah, well, then I’ll see you soon. Good morning to you.”
“Yes, bye…” he said quickly to her retreating lab coat.
He stood up – too quickly – and the room began to spin…so he sat down and held on to the bed rails until the feeling passed, taking deep breaths all the while, then he tried again…this time more slowly.
“That’s better,” he said as he shuffled across the cold floor to the little dresser where his clothes had been stashed. He slipped out of his gown and pulled on clean underwear, troubled by how difficult even this menial chore seemed now, then he tried to pull his shirt on…and that proved to be simply impossible. He couldn’t raise his left arm high enough to get his arm in the sleeve, so he pulled the shirt off in disgust and threw it on the floor, walked back to the bed.
One of the dayshift nurses came in, saw his shirt on the floor and picked it up. “Having trouble?”
He grumbled, shook his head.
“Ah, I think perhaps you are.”
More grumbling, dark clouds forming over his head.
“Try to gather it up and work the shirt up your bad arm, like this,” she said, holding the shirt up and gently sliding the sleeve up his left arm. “Now, over your head, then get the other arm through, like this.”
“Okay,” he snarled. “Now, what about socks, and tying my shoes?”
“One thing at a time.”
By the time Bauer arrived, he was covered in sweat and his mood had darkened considerably. And he had still not managed to get his shoes on. She saw his frustration, then all his sweat-soaked clothing, and bent down, put on his shoes without saying a word. An orderly helped him into a wheelchair and got him to the street; Bauer helped him into a small van she’d hired to pick him up.
Getting onto Bandit proved even more problematic, and by the time he made it up into the cockpit he was almost in tears. Doing even the smallest things required two hands, and that meant two working arms, yet his left was still strapped to his torso, and now totally useless. Sensing his mood, Bauer left him on deck and returned to her clinic.
After school let out, Rolf Bauer met his mother there, and they went down to Bandit together. She’d thought about postponing this meeting but Henry had insisted, wanting to thank the boy for his hard work.
“So, this is your boy?”
“Yes. Rolf, say hello to Mr. Taggart.”
“It’s Henry, Rolf. Okay?”
“Okay. Nice to meet you, Henry.”
“Well, you did a bang-up job up here, really great. Many thanks!”
“You are welcome. Mother tells me you are sailing up to the Lofotens?”
“Yes. Yes, indeed.”
“I’ve never been.”
“Ah. Well, what did you have in mind?”
“I could act as crew, maybe?”
“Rolf!” his mother cried. “You cannot ask such a thing, it’s simply not polite to make such a request.”
Taggert watched the interplay between mother and son, all his pent up hope and her surprised reprisal, with a sense of brooding déjà vu streaming through his mind’s eye. Rolf, he saw, was a budding Henry! A real ‘smart ass’ in the making! A true kindred spirit! His mother? Overbearing, a little too controlling, kind of like someone he remembered…
“Excellent!” Henry said. “I could use an extra pair of hands!”
Which stopped mother and son dead in their tracks.
“What did you say?” mother and son said in the same breath.
“Sounds good to me?” Henry said, now grinning sheepishly. “And now, I need some food. Some real food. Anyone care to join me for dinner?”
“I would!” Rolf said, holding up his hand like he was still in school.
Henry looked at Bauer. “You too? Or are you going to stand there and pout all night?”
“Yes, of course I’ll join you,” she said.
“Do you know,” he chimed in, “that I have no idea what your name is?”
“Britt,” Dr. Bauer said. “I’m sorry, I just thought…”
“Britt? Britt Bauer? Okay, so BB it is…”
Rolf burst out laughing. “I love it! BB! Ha-ha-ha…”
“Oh, this is going to be a fun evening,” he said as he passed Britt on his way to the swim platform.
She rolled her eyes.
When they’d made it up to the street he looked around, shook his head.
“No seafood for me tonight,” he snarled.
“I want Indian!” Rolf blurted out, and as his mother was about to correct him he cut in.
“My favorite! I didn’t know y’all had Indian food up here?”
“Really?” Britt said. “You really like it?”
“Hell yes, the hotter the better.”
“Me too!” Rolf cried.
“I feel a contest of wills building here, boy. You better not be foolin’ around, ‘cause I’m a pro from way back.”
She walked behind them, watched this frightful old American and her equally frightful son getting along like best friends who hadn’t seen each other in years and she couldn’t help but wonder…could this work? Could her son help this comedic lost soul? Could this lost soul fill in the gaps, help her son grow out of his years long depression? Was it worth the risk?
“Damn, it’s getting cool out,” he said after a few minutes walking.
“You’re anemic, cold will effect you a little more now.”
“Of course it will. Why not?”
“I will put you on an iron supplement tomorrow.”
“Maybe I could just buy a sweater, like that one!”
There was a shop full of sweaters in a window display but she held out her hand. “Those are very expensive, you might want to try another shop…”
“Nonsense, these look fantastic. Dale of Norway. How about that…”
“It is pronounced like the word doll.”
“Of course it is,” he said as he stepped into the shop. He walked right up to one he liked and held it up to himself, checking for size. “Think this one is too big?”
“It might be a little difficult to put on,” she said, trying to be helpful.
“True. A cardigan it is, then.” He found one and she helped him with it. “Now this is comfy. Warm, too.”
“They are the best sweaters in the world,” Rolf said.
“And I’ll bet you have two of them.”
“No,” he said, frowning.
“Well, pick one out.”
“Rolf,” his mother said, “no!”
“Rolf, ignore your mother.”
“You have no right to do this!” Britt cried.
“I have every right. Your son worked for hours on my boat. I need to do something for him, don’t I?”
She looked crestfallen and turned away.
“And you might as well pick one out, too.”
They walked out of the shop ten minutes later in black sweaters. There were lots of smiles all around.
Rolf ordered a beef vindaloo at the Indian place, and asked for it ‘extra hot’…
Mom order chicken tikka masala, mild.
“Lamb masala. Napalm.”
“I beg your pardon, sahib?” their perplexed waiter said.
“So hot it’ll melt my fork?”
“You are sure, sahib?”
“Oh yeah, baby. Bring it on.”
“I beg your pardon, sahib?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Very good, sahib.”
He sat back and looked at BB, really for the first time since they’d met. She looked to be 35, maybe 40 years old, and she looked like a mother. He didn’t know why, but she did. Maybe a little too stressed out when Rolf was around? Like she was in over her head? Beyond that, she looked like almost every other Norwegian girl he’d seen since he got here: tall, skinny, big tits, blond hair and a huge, toothy smile. In short, they looked like every other girl in Southern California, and probably ninety nine percent of the girls in Newport Beach.
The major difference, as far as he could tell, was that BB spoke better English than the girls in Southern California, and he’d long ago given up trying to understand girls from the San Fernando Valley…the so-called Valley Girls. They were an alien species.
Even so, he didn’t find her all that attractive, and sitting there beside her he wondered why. She was, really, objectively pretty. She was obviously intelligent, too. ‘So, why don’t I find her cute?’ he asked himself.
‘Maybe because you’re too fucking old, you asshole?’ he said, grinning.
“What are you smelling about?” she asked.
“I can’t wait to taste my masala. I bet it’s going to burn my lips off.”
Rolf laughed, she smiled…a little, too.
Then their plates came.
“You know,” he said, looking directly at Britt, “over in the States when we order like this, we share. We each take a little bit from each dish, so that way we get to sample them all.”
And she looked right back at him: “No way. I am not so stupid.”
“Rolf? You think you’re up to the challenge?”
“What did you say? Bring it on, Baby?”
“That’s my man. Pass me your plate!”
He split his serving into two portions and put half on Rolf’s plate, then he did the same with Rolf’s vindaloo. Staring at this culinary armageddon, he ripped off a piece of naan and pushed some vindaloo onto his fork and ate it.
The heat built slowly, and it was noticeably warm but not overwhelmingly hot, so he took a deep breath and loaded his fork with his weapons-grade masala. One look at the fumes rising from his fork should have been ample warning, but he sighed then put the fork in his mouth.
He chewed twice and swallowed, then downed a glass of water – which only made it worse.
“Mother of God…” he whispered, “this shit is hot.” He saw his waiter talking to one of the cooks, both were laughing and high-fiving…which, under the circumstances, was not a particularly good sign.
“My turn,” Rolf said, scooping up a mega-forkful of the masala and stuffing it unceremoniously into his mouth. His eyes popped wide open, he began sweating, then he swallowed and reached for his water.
“Hey, Buddy, it don’t help…”
The kid let loose a string of Norse profanity which, of course, prompted a blistering counterattack by his mother. And while she was so engaged, Henry took a prodigious scoop of his masala and placed it on her fork.
Rolf saw the move and apologized to his mother, who then sat back and picked up her fork. Seconds later the deed was done.
She brought her napkin to her mouth and he heard her mutter something that sounded suspiciously like a Viking war-cry, a new version of “Die, Motherfuckers!” – then she too picked up her glass of water and downed it in one gulp.
All three were now beet red and sweating like hogs, the cooks and waiters were laughing so hard that one had fallen on the floor, but still the other patrons had no idea what was going on…until Henry stood up and announced to one and all that – “Goddamn! My asshole is on fire! Somebody! Quick, give me some ice!”
A waiter brought a scoop full of the stuff, and Taggart took the ice and shoved it down the back of his pants as he hopped towards the bathroom.
Now everyone in the restaurant was howling; Rolf’s crimson face was tear-streaked and Britt was laughing so hard she felt light-headed…
Henry Taggart calmed down as soon as he made it to the restroom, then he washed his hands and wiped his face with a paper towel. “You still got it, Champ.” With the ice thoroughly broken now, he thought it was time to get to the bottom of this little Britt-Rolf war-thing, and figure out a way to put an end to it…
They made it back to the Bandit way past Rolf’s bedtime, so Britt decided to tuck him in up in the foreword berth, then she rejoined Henry up in the cockpit.
“I don’t know how you get used to it?”
“What?” she asked.
“It’s a quarter past ten and it looks like three in the afternoon…”
She smiled. “Thank you for the sweaters. That was very sweet.”
“I saw the look in his eyes after he put it on. That was worth a million bucks.”
“Why didn’t you get married? You seem like you’d make a good father.”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“Yes, but what I saw tonight wasn’t deception.”
He leaned back, crossed his arms. “What about you? Divorced? From what I can see, a man would have to be crazy to divorce you.”
She seemed to hesitate, thinking about how to say what she needed to say. “Rolf’s father was in the air force. He died in a training accident.”
“I’m sorry. You said…were you, uh, not married?”
“That’s right. Everything happened a few months before we were supposed to get married.”
“So, you’ve raised him on your own?”
“Had you finished medical school?”
“I was an intern when he died, yes.”
“Sounds like a difficult time.”
“You know, I look back on it now and it was the best time of my life. I loved every minute of his childhood.”
“You’re a good mom.”
“You think so?”
“Seems like you care enough for two mothers, so yes, I think so.”
“My mother helped.”
“Oh? What is she like?”
“You know her. Haven’t you made an opinion yet?”
“Excuse me? I know your mother?”
“Yes, she’s your Oncologist.”
His eyes opened a bit more on hearing that. “Really? I had no idea.”
“Yes, I called her as soon as I suspected something. She got you right in.”
“She did seem to take a personal interest.”
“Yes, because I had taken a personal interest. She still looks after me, you see.”
“I think I understand. Has she made your life difficult?”
Britt shook her head. “No, not really. She has controlled my life, but she…”
“I guess some parents do that. Maybe out of instinct, or perhaps because that’s the way they were raised.”
She shrugged. “Maybe.”
“So, about Rolf. Does he have any experience sailing?”
“I don’t think so. Conditions off this coast can turn very harsh in a matter of minutes.”
“You’d rather he didn’t go?”
“I’m not sure, Henry. It could be a marvelous experience for him, and I say that because I think you might be a very good teacher. He is also at an age where he will remember something like this, and for the rest of his life. It could be a very good thing.”
“So, maybe a good thing? What are the negatives you see?”
“That you have Parkinson’s, and a very serious cancer.”
“If something happened to you, would he know what to do? Could he take care of the ship and you? And if the weather turned violent, then what?”
“Sounds we need another adult to come.”
“I know nothing about sailing, and anyway, I could not take so much time off. This is the clinic’s busiest time of the year, and we are state supported so very rigidly controlled.”
“Oh well, something else to think about.”
“Unfortunately, I know someone perfect. A physician and a more than competent sailor.”
“No, Henry. I don’t think you do. But I can promise you one thing. She sees. She sees everything before it happens. She knows everything…before it happens.”
“Speaking sarcastically, of course.”
“Oh no, not in the least. Those who believe in mysticism, such people call it clairvoyance, others who know her well dismiss her ability as the expression of a profound empathy. But whatever it might be, when you’ve spent enough time around her, as I have, like Rolf has, you understand that one thing is true. You disregard her at your peril. You listen to her and, well Henry, you learn to have an open mind.”
“Empathy. Yes, I saw something like that in her eyes.”
“Yes, but it is much more than that. Still, I can tell you little else.”
“Should I ask her if she has any interest in coming?”
“You could ask, yes. But she already knows. And she has already made her mind up.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“She is a force of nature, Mr. Taggart. Please try to understand that much before you dismiss her out of hand.”
“She is my oncologist. Believe me, I take what she has to say most seriously.”
“Your hands are shaking, Henry. Is it time for your medication?”
He looked at his watch. “Damn. Fifteen minutes late.”
“You need a better system. Perhaps an alarm clock?”
He reached inside a pocket and pulled out a bottle, then slipped a pill under his tongue. “You know, it’s amazing how pleasant it is, even in the middle of the night.”
“It’s the Gulf Stream. Even this far north it moderates the climate, and in winter most of the coast remains ice free.” She yawned, and her eyes watered a little in the breeze.
“Ready for bed? There’s room up forward, with Rolf, and there’s a tiny stateroom just across from the Galley if you’d prefer.”
“Would you make love to me?”
He blinked several times in rapid succession, shook his head a couple of times. “You know, I didn’t see that coming.”
“A few hours ago, neither did I. Would you?”
“You know, Britt, I think the operant question right now is can I? The thing is, I can’t remember the last time…”
“Maybe we should go find out,” she said, holding out her hand.
And he took it, led her to his cabin under the aft deck.
It took a few minutes to coax ‘things’ back to life, but in the end ‘things’ worked just fine after all.
There was work to do, of course. Any trans-oceanic crossing exacts a heavy toll on almost every system on a sailing vessel, no matter the size. Rigging had to be inspected, the sails re-installed on their furlers, too. Engine oil had to be drawn and analyzed, the shaft stuffing box repacked. The water-makers membranes had to be flushed, the propane lines checked, and the propane tanks refilled. The main water tanks had to be emptied, flushed, emptied and refreshed until the lines ran clear. Diesel tanks emptied, the contents spun through a series of filters to removed any algae, then the tanks polished and refilled. All thru-hull fittings checked and rechecked…the list was almost endless and, even with professional help, took Taggart ten days to complete. Rolf was still in school, but the boy came down every afternoon and helped out for several hours, retiring to the saloon table down below to finish his homework and study for final exams. After a few days of this, his mother agreed to let him sleep on board; a few days later she started sleeping over, enjoying Henry’s company more and more.
On his first Saturday morning onboard, Henry sent the boy up the mast in a bosun’s chair; his mission – un-do all electronic fittings and spray with Boe-Shield, let dry and re-attach. Then spray all shrouds and stays with WD-40, then more Boe-Shield. He donned a wetsuit and grabbed a tank out of his locker, then slipped under the water and replaced all the anodes, finishing off the underwater work with a light scrub-down of the anti-fouling paint, clearing the ship’s bottom of speed-robbing plant-life.
All of it was a new routine, completely different than the time he’d spent with Time Bandit before he started the crossing. After taking delivery in Connecticut, he taken her up through the Cape Cod Canal to Boston, then up to Northeast Harbor, in Acadia National Park. He spent a few days anchored out in Somes Sound, then refueled before setting out for Norfolk, Virginia. He transited the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, first laid out by George Washington, then worked his way down to Charleston using the Intra-Coastal Waterway. As winter was settling-in up north, he had continued south to Key West, stopping in Miami for meds and a check-up.
It was true, he discovered. The sun was a restorative. He soaked it up for hours on end, and he was amazed at how good it felt after two months on the water. Even more amazing was Key West, and how he fell into the whole Conch-Republic vibe. He rediscovered drinking, then found that his medications and alcohol didn’t mix well. He ate foods he’d never tried before, weird stuff like deep-fried alligator tail and chicken wings so hot he cried, and in a way, he felt like he was beginning to shed old layers of skin, ridding himself of old, comfortable ways of being, in the process becoming something new and different…and as he grew more aware of these changes he found he was as confused as he was exhilarated.
The boat scene in Florida was radically different than what he was used to, as well. Many more people were full-time liveaboards down here, and like any alternative community these people gathered and shared experiences and advice; in the Keys they came together around campfires on the beach or at bars in town, and he found himself falling into that vibe, too. He’d never done these kinds of things before, and he found himself pushing out of his comfort zone, sometimes being pushed, because these people had been there, done that, and recognized the symptoms of Henry’s long-constricted way of seeing the world.
Though he thought he was an experienced sailor, he soon learned the ins-and-outs of the live-aboard life, and he began to think that – assuming he could manage his Parkinson’s – he really could see living this way for the rest of his life. Yet he felt a hollow emptiness more acutely now, too, because most every “liveaboard” he ran across was part of a couple. He felt different, more like he was on the outside looking in. Different, and not just because of his medical condition.
Yet he still found that he had little interest in hooking up, and in a way he understood that his experience in college, watching those blond things latched onto the arms of Saudi princes, had really colored his take on relationships. He questioned the sincerity of things like love and fidelity, reduced them to equations of fiduciary responsibility that he could, in his mind, anyway, reduce to simple lines of code.
One night at a bar a girl came on hard and he’d almost been tempted, then she told him her price, what a few hours in the sack would cost, and with all his prejudices confirmed he washed his hands of the idea for good, prepared to enjoy the rest of his life as a singleton. He pulled away from the boaties after that, began to insulate himself from the world again, relying, as he had since he first started school, on sarcasm to maintain a certain kind of safe distance from people.
As winter washed away he sailed north, followed the Gulf Stream between Bermuda and the mainland as Spring came on, and he stopped off in Connecticut at the dealer, made sure Time Bandit was indeed sound enough for the crossing that lay just ahead. Two weeks later, in late April, he departed US waters on a great circle course that would take him just south of Greenland and Iceland, past the Faroes and Shetlands to Bergen. And in a way, he set his new life’s course in motion, too. What Henry Taggart did not, indeed, could not fathom was the depth of uncertainty that lay ahead.
Every journey is fraught with unknown hazards and frequent moments of incredible beauty, even joy, yet here was a man almost completely unprepared to join with others of his own kind. He had insulated himself from the vagaries of human companionship for so long that he simply had no idea what could happen when life caught him unprepared for the obvious, and because words like friendship and love had become ossified abstractions, he was equally unprepared to face the consequences of his previous existence.
Because the human soul craves companionship, and Henry Taggart was a starving man, wandering through a desert of his own creation, living a life tinted through the warped lens of a stunted imagination. Because he could not even imagine what might come next, he was completely unprepared when nature decided to reset his course.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | here ends part one; look for the conclusion in a week or so.