[Work on The 88th Key is coming along, look for something new in a few days. As for me generally speaking I’m doing pretty good right now, at least slipping back into the groove again. Still, as always, Music Matters. Words do too.]
An ancient diesel crane sat on the dock above Karma and Time Bandits, and men swarmed over both boats erecting lumber guides to aid them as they pulled each mast. After they were pulled, each was wrapped in plastic and then loaded onto a long trailer, leaving Henry to plug the hole through the deck left by the absent mast, though H-R had thoughtfully included one so it only took a few minutes to get that chore out of the way. All he and Tracy had to do now was wait for the fuel truck, so they decided to sit in Bandits’ cockpit while they waited. She brought a few croissant and a jar of citrus marmalade she’d put up while in Horta, and he used a French press to brew up some freshly ground Ethiopian coffee beans.
He was still almost in shock after talking with Tracy’s mother; once she’d ascertained he was alone on his boat she declared her intent to come to Paris as soon as North Atlantic air travel resumed. Now, watching the port come back to life he harbored no illusions; Edith would no doubt show up in Paris by the time they could move their two boats up to the Arsenal Marina.
Though even now Tracy seemed a little put-out by the whole thing. She had, after all, decided to leave on this trip after her divorce was finalized – which no doubt included the brutal family upheavals that inevitably follow such things. Yet Edith, her mother, had been through a real blockbuster of a divorce as well, and not too many years ago, so suddenly there was a very real potential for all kinds of combustible excess baggage if Edith showed up out of the blue.
Yet…Tracy was a physician. A psychiatrist too, true enough, but a licensed M.D. nonetheless – and assuming Dina followed through and didn’t return he knew he was going to need one soon enough.
“What medicines are you carrying onboard?” she asked as they sat in the shade.
“You. As in, you know, your condition?”
But Henry had simply shrugged the question away. “I couldn’t really tell you, Tracy. Dina stocked three pantries with all kinds of stuff, right down to chemotherapy agents she put in the ‘fridge.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Nope, but could we finish our coffee first?”
She’s smiled at that. “I forget…I’m not on California time anymore.”
“It takes a few months to break free of all that crap,” he said, smiling at his decisive indecisiveness. “Two cups of coffee, however, and I’m right back in the groove.”
“This is good stuff. Where’d you pick it up?”
“In Copenhagen. Everything good in life can be found in Denmark.”
“Funny, I wasn’t planning on going north, but now I’m not so sure that was the right decision.”
“That’s the thing about having your home with you. I had simply intended to follow the weather, to stay in one place until the weather dictated a change.”
She looked away for a moment, then turned to face him again. “I know you’re used to all this by now, but the whole cancer thing is new to me, and I have a hard time accepting – your future.”
He nodded. “I understand. And yes, I get the whole five stages of grief thing, too. But frankly, I think I’m stuck in the pissed-off stage.”
She smiled at his self-deprecating humor, but she nodded her understanding. “I think I would be too. How could you not be?”
“Well, there’s a lot going on that we haven’t gone over yet. Hopefully we’ll have time to in Paris.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Henry.”
He nodded. “And that makes me wonder, Tracy. Why not? Are you homesick?”
She looked away, looked almost lost in thought. He poured a little more coffee and nibbled at his croissant while he looked at her. “You know, I don’t think I miss California – not really,” she said a while later – softly, almost gently. “The thing is, I grew up hearing about Claire – but all those conversations, all those memories, always seemed to include you. I don’t know, Henry, but it’s like you and Claire were inseparable, even in death. You were always the knight in shining armor, too, if you know what I mean…”
“Not true,” Taggart said ruefully. “I never, ever, not even once shined my armor.”
“But you were inseparable, weren’t you?”
“So I have to assume everything I know about this whole thing is true…”
“I’m curious, Tracy. Listening to you for a while now, it seems that Claire has taken on the dimensions of mythology, even if it is only a family mythology. Why?”
“I think my mother grew up in Claire’s shadow, and because of that she grew up most unsure of herself, but all that changed when Claire got sick. From all the stories I’ve heard over the years, Mom seemed to blossom in the aftermath of Claire’s passing, and I think therein lies the tale – at least from a shrink’s point of view. Mom never felt guilt – I mean, how could she? – yet at the same time Claire’s passing was probably the biggest thing that everhappened to her – at least while she still lived at home.”
“You know,” Henry said, “it’s funny, but I barely remember your mother before all that happened – even though she was just a few years younger. But to say she was lost in Claire’s shadow really doesn’t do the situation justice, Tracy, because from the little I do remember it seemed she almost worshipped Claire. She tried to mimic Claire at school and it always backfired, too, and I think I remember those things more than anything else.”
“Dad told me about it,” Tracy said, looking down now. “Mom blossomed, or so he told me, but he also said that no matter how hard she tried she always paled in comparison to Claire.”
Henry shrugged evasively – though as he looked away he struggled with another flood of unwanted memory. “I wasn’t around for a lot of that, I guess. Most of that would’ve happened my senior year, and Edith was a sophomore that year.”
“That’s what seems so strange to me, Henry.”
“Yes, strange. Because Mom always used to say she would have never made it through that year without you.”
“Oh, did she?”
“And funny, too, because one of the things Dad told me when they broke up was that he was tired of competing with you.”
“Yes,” he said, standing up suddenly, “that is funny.” Then he walked over to the lifelines and stepped down onto the quay – before he walked off with his hands in his pockets and his head hung low.
She couldn’t decide whether to follow him or not, but in the end her heart won that battle.
The fuel truck didn’t make it until almost 1500 hours, but by then the tide had turned again and there was no point trying to head upriver until early the next morning. Henry made arrangements for both boats to remain tied-up where they lay, then, after slipping another sublingual anti-nausea med under his tongue he took Tracy out to dinner in LeHavre. The three of them left for the half hour walk, with Clyde forcing a few diversions to water the grass along their meandering way.
“Have you ever transited a lock before?” he asked once they’d settled at a table and been handed menus, and once Clyde had settled on Henry’s feet.
“No, but I’ve been reading up on it.”
He sighed. “It’s nothing what you expect it will be, Tracy. These locks are huge so they might not be too turbulent, but your boat is heavy and it doesn’t have a bow thruster.”
“Yours does, I take it?”
“Actually, it has bow and stern thrusters so I can handle the lines from the wheel. You’ll have to tie off the tiller and work the lines from amidships. Don’t get me wrong here – you can do it – assuming you don’t panic if turbulence gets hold of you. Beyond that, just watch out for that bowsprit.”
“You really think you can handle your boat alone?”
He nodded. “I think I’ll need help once we get to the marina in Paris.”
“You were counting on Dina and that boy, weren’t you?”
“Yup. They’re still kind of MIA, if you know what I mean, so…”
“No, I don’t understand all that, Henry. And…what’s the big mystery? – I mean, it’s kind of hard to believe you don’t know where they are.”
He shrugged. “Like I said, there’s a lot going on.”
“And you don’t want to tell me.”
“If and when circumstances allow I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
“Gee, I love paternalistic assholes so much!” she said through a malignantly forced smile.
“Not paternalism, Tracy. I simply don’t want to stretch the limits of credulity, at least not yet.”
“Well, I love a mystery.”
“Good. Is your ground tackle up to snuff?”
“I’ve anchored out a few times without any problem, if that’s what you mean?”
“Just in case things get sideways on us. Best to be able to get your anchor down in a hurry if you lose an engine in a narrow channel.”
“Nice. I like the way you change subjects.”
“Do you? Good. I’ve worked hard over the years to perfect the skill.”
“So, my mom’s sophomore year? Ready to talk about it, or is that a subject changer too?”
He shook his head. “No, not ready.”
“If your mom shows up maybe then we can cover some of that ground, because maybe it’s just not fair to talk about all that without her around to stick up for her point of view.”
Tracy nodded. “You’re right.”
“The other reason, if I may, concerns you.”
“Yeah, you. Look, you may be twenty something years younger than your mother, but you just have to understand that there’s a history between us.”
“What has that got to do with me?”
“Well, first of all you’re drop-dead gorgeous, and I’m still a male with a pulse and that means I recognize little things like that. Second, your mom and dad – and I – do have a history. A complicated history.”
“So, Dad wasn’t exaggerating…”
“No, he wasn’t, but also, well, look – it’s the reason I left LA for Seattle. And why I had to stay away.”
“So…you and my mom…?”
“It wasn’t as simple as that, Tracy. I was falling apart and she kept me from falling all the way down, but in a way she was still a kid. Worse still, to this day there’s no way I can look at her and not see Claire.”
“I figured it was something like that, but why Seattle.”
But Henry drifted on the crest of the word, lost in a wave as strings of memory pulsed into and out of view – but the pain was real, and the cost to all their lives too high.
She watched the change come over him and reached out, took his hand. “We don’t have to talk about it, Henry. I just thought that…”
“Someday, Tracy. There’s just too much I haven’t thought about in a long, long time, and only so much…”
“If my mom comes will things get weird between you two?”
He looked at her and shrugged. “I don’t know. I really don’t know what will happen. We were always an unstable compound, you know? Never meant to last, I guess.”
“You weren’t expecting any of this, were you?”
“What? You mean, like you – and your mom…”
“And all those memories. They were behind you, weren’t they?”
Henry shook his head, then he looked her in the eye once again. “You know what, Tracy? It feels like everything is coming full circle right now, yet I’m not really sure why. I’m closing in on the end of this journey, this return to Paris, but Honfleur was always going to be a part of that story, too. Now, here’s the weird part. In a way I think it was almost inevitable that we were going to meet up when and where we did. I know that sounds more than a little nuts, but think about it. Like, what if you’d decided to go to a different restaurant that night, or if I’d been a day late arriving. Think of how many things had to go ‘just so’ in order for us to meet when and where we did…and from the day I left California right up to that moment. And from the day you left, too. One little hiccup and we’d have missed each other – but that didn’t happen, did it?”
She nodded. “Kismet?” she grinned.
“And there are a million possible explanations, Henry. It just happened, like these things do everyday, for everyone – everywhere.”
“Are you listening to what you’re saying, Tracy?”
“I’m a rationalist, Henry. Sorry.”
“Yeah, well so am I – but this was kind of a slap on the face.”
“Most people, especially when the end of life approaches, reach out for comforting explanations to perplexing questions. There’s nothing unusual about it, Henry, nothing new or unusual about your feeling this way right now.”
“I think you’re missing the point, Tracy.”
“What point is that? Your talking about ultimate causality, right? Things like predetermination, la forza del destino…”
“I’m not in any kind of a hurry to slap labels on these observations right now,” Henry replied. “Still, if I could ask just one thing of you right now, it would be that you try to keep an open mind about what you’re going to see between now and Christmas.”
She seemed to pause, to hold back for a moment, but then she smiled. “I can do that.”
“Good. Now, what do you think of these snails? Too salty?”
They walked back to the harbor, a good, solid half hour walk in a chilly breeze, but there simply weren’t too many options available yet. Only a few taxis were running around the city so far, and while there was a train scheduled to depart for Paris in the morning, air service still wasn’t an option – anywhere. The magnetic pole had re-stabilized – only now it appeared to be loitering over eastern Siberia – and the night sky was still alive with geomagnetic storms, and so for the time being the major airlines were limiting operations to very short haul overland sectors only. With almost thirty aircraft lost when the first storm hit, and with a final death toll more than twice the 9/11 tally, no airline seemed to be in a hurry to resume transoceanic operations.
They turned into the old port area and started for the quay where their boats were tied-off, with Clyde finally stopping here to shed a few unwanted pounds of salmon, but as they approached the quay Henry saw two navy blue Land Rovers idling there, just above Time Bandits.
“Well, Hell,” he sighed as he recognized the same French Navy markings he’d spotted two nights ago, “this I was not expecting.”
Taggart motioned with his head, indicating the Rovers parked ahead.
“Who are they?” Tracy said, now a little anxiously.
“The Bad Guys.”
“What? You mean, like mafia types?”
“No…worse. Naval Intelligence types.”
As they walked up a door opened and Captain Mike Lacy, USN, stepped out. Dressed regally now in navy blue sweats and a yellow ball cap, Lacy waited by the Rover while Taggart took Tracy down to Karma.
“Are you going to be okay?” she asked as he helped her aboard. “Or should I come with you?”
Henry shook his head. “No, stay here. I don’t know what they want, but I’m no threat to them now and they know it.”
She sighed. “Okay, but come get me after they leave.”
He nodded and turned to walk back up the ramp to the Rovers, but he stopped and turned to look at her again, measuring her every move as she went below, then he turned again and resumed walking up the ramp.
“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Captain?”
“They want me to make the trip up the river with you, Henry. Sorry, I know this is going to be uncomfortable, but the alternative would probably be a helluva lot worse.”
“Well, I was wondering why you left clothes in your locker…?”
“I brought along a little inducement, too. If you don’t put up too much of a stink we’ll release Anton, providing he stays with you for the time being. By the way, who’s the dame?”
“The dame? Are you kidding? You trying out for a part in Casablanca, Mike?”
“Who is she, Henry?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
Lacy shrugged. “She’s not on our radar, Henry.”
“She a psychiatrist from California, left the US in April, came over by way of the Azores.”
“Uh-huh. You know her?”
“I do now,” Taggart said, grinning salaciously.
“You dog…I shoulda guessed.”
Lacy walked over to the other Rover and knocked on the glass, motioning to whomever that it was okay to come out.
Anton stepped out into the night, and even in the shadows Henry could tell his face was heavily bruised, and he walked over favoring his right leg.
“That’s just great, Lacy. What the fuck did you do that for?”
“Some Air Force intel guy did it before we could stop him. Apparently he was pissed off about the F-15 Anton waxed.”
“War…the gift that keeps on giving,” Henry sighed. “Like things weren’t bad enough already.”
“Look, Henry, Anton asked for political asylum and the French are willing to go along with that – provided you keep him off the streets.”
“That’s not a problem, Mike. I told Anton he was welcome to stay with me as long as he wants, and that still applies…”
“Henry, again, he has to stay with you…”
“Genry,” Anton grimaced, “they afraid I spy. I stay. I make no problem here.” Taggart held out his right hand and Anton took it, but then the Russian pulled Henry into a tight hug.
“Good to have you back with us, shipmate,” Taggart whispered.
“Good be back, my friend.”
“I’ll help you down.”
“No. Better I do alone, Genry. That way bastards get no satisfaction.”
“Fine by me.”
“Want I should take Clyde?”
“No, just be careful…the ramp is a little slippery.”
Henry watched the aviator limp over to the handrail before he turned to face Lacy, then he would up a haymaker and let it fly, his fist catching the captain off-guard and knocking him to the ground.
And when all the doors on both Land Rovers flew open, and as the heavily armed intel types raced to take him down – Taggart simply smiled.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next element will drop as soon as the muse cooperates.
Oh, just one more thought. Oh, have you watched Pixar’s Soul yet?