Saturday
Jul262014

Those People

Dave Housley


 

We're having our second cup of after-breakfast coffee, Tricia looking through the activities for the day, talking about the benefits of the Down Home on the Blue Dome BBQ versus the parasailing excursion, when we finally see our host. She is short, heavy, skin tanned the color of my two-creamer coffee, hair dyed corn yellow. The first thing we hear is her signature laugh and of course everybody turns toward the Davy Crockett Deck, because we've heard that laugh before on Cookin' With Sara or the Today Show or Oprah or the Walmart ads or, lately, the news shows where we watched the grainy video of her saying those terrible things and then the high-definition Sunday talk apology tour that followed. There's a noticeable rustle and I sit back because, for the first time since we boarded this cruise ship, people aren't staring at me.

She works the room like a politician at a hometown pig roast, looking each traveler in the eye, shaking with two hands, making jokes and small talk and complimenting the women on their clothes or hair, the men on their women. That laugh bounds out toward the ceiling, seeking the open air of the entrances, and I picture each delighted bark slipping out over the ocean like a balloon until it pops and fizzles down into the sea.

"Holy shit there she is," Tricia says. She kicks me under the table. "Sara fucking Lane." She says it like you'd say "there it is, Christmas morning," like it's inevitable but remarkable all the same, because of course it is: we are, after all, currently steaming out to sea, three hours out of Miami, guests on the Sara Lane Luxury Cruise.

We are watching. Everybody is watching. "Oh my goodness you have got to tell me your secret," Sara Lane says to an overweight lady who has clearly tried to imitate her signature hairstyle. She twirls the woman's bangs like a hairdresser. "Just darling!" she says, and another laugh whoops up toward the ceiling. She turns to the next table and that's when she sees me. Our eyes meet and her face drops for just a moment, and then she must be realizing where she is, doing the mental calculation of whether I'm some kind of inside man for the NAACP or if I'm just another guy looking to enjoy an all-inclusive cruise with his favorite television chef personality. She smiles and I'm glad I listened to Tricia's suggestion about how to dress today—collared golf shirt, khakis, docksiders. "Just dress like the rest of them are going to be dressed," she had said, and we both laughed even though she was only half-joking.

Sara Lane chugs toward us, her face set in a half-smile, like she's waiting to go to a commercial break. She steps past two tables full of middle-aged couples dressed head to toe in Tennessee University regalia and they stare in amazement. My face is frozen in a half-smile too and I notice for the first time two black-clad security guys in the back of the room, talking into microphones. They each take a tentative step forward, then another.

"Well my goodness don't y'all just look like a picture!" she says. I stand up and we're shaking hands and I notice how small she is, how orange, how her open-toed shoes pinch at the chubby tops of her feet. "So glad to see y'all!" she says, and I wonder if she really is speaking a little louder, pushing her words out toward the entire Crockett Deck, or if this is how she talks all the time. It's gotten quiet, the room gone still, and I can hear the steady clink of a bar being set up, jangly country music.

"Y'all mind if I sit down?" Sara Lane says. "Join you for a spell?"

"Of course," Tricia says.

Sara Lane plops down in a chair and the table wobbles, sending a splash of my coffee onto the starched white tablecloth. "I am so sorry," she says. She nods at a waiter, almost imperceptibly, as much will as motion, and he hustles over and replaces my mug.

Sara Lane's face goes serious. "I hope," she says, leaning over the table, locking eyes on me and then Tricia and then back to me, "that you all have been made to feel welcome."

"Um . . ." I say. Tricia nods her head, pushes her hand out dismissively, as if there could never be any question as to how welcome we might feel.

"Not different welcome, mind you," Sarah Lane says. "Just...well, you know. Welcome welcome."

We nod. In the background, I can hear the busboys speaking in quick Spanish. A laugh from the kitchen. Guy Sterling singing about heartache over the ship's ever-present speakers.

Sara Lane puts her hands on the table, reaches out and covers Tricia's hand with her right, mine with her left. She is small and has to half stand in order to make the distance. Her hand is sweaty and hot and I fight the urge to pull my hand back, stuff it in my pocket. "I want to say something to you," Sara Lane says. Again, she looks Tricia in the eye, and then me. One of the security guys has slipped through the diners and is standing a few steps to my left. "I want to apologize."

Tricia starts to say something and Sara Lane shakes her head no. She squeezes our hands tighter. "I need to," she says. She closes her eyes and when she opens them again they are teary and I wonder if this is some kind of actor's trick. "I want to apologize to you personally. For what I said all those years ago." She closes her eyes again and a tear drifts down her cheek. "I know you saw that video. Everybody saw that video. And I want to apologize for the things I said. The word I used. That was a private party and back in those days I was still drinking and I said something I had no right to say. Whether you all might say that word or not, I had no place." I try to catch Tricia's eye but she is focused on Sara Lane. "But you know what? I'm glad. I am." She looks at us like she is revealing something of incredible importance. "I'm a better person now. I'm not proud of that moment but I'm proud that I'm sitting with you lovely people today. And I'm proud that you're here. That makes me so very, very proud." Her eyes are closed and she opens them and looks at Tricia then at me, then she scans the nearby tables, who have all ceased attending to their eggs and bacon and hot buttered grits and even the signature biscuits. She nods, squeezes our hands again, and sits back in her chair.

Silence hangs in the air. Even the kitchen has gone quiet. Guy Sterling is now singing about horses and I remember that he is here as well, featured performer at tonight's welcome barbeque.

I have no idea what to say and I'm so relieved when Tricia clears her throat. "It's a lovely cruise," she says. "I was just saying to Lionel that it's so hard to choose from all these amazing activities."

"Thank you," Sara Lane whispers. And then she shouts "Thank you so much!" and it's like the sound kickstarts the room—people begin talking again, eating, the room filled with the familiar scrape and tinkle of forks, knives, glasses. Sara Lane stands up. She wipes her eyes. "Y'all really gotta try the biscuits," she says, and waddles off to shake hands with the Tennessee Volunteer people, picking up right where she left off.

 

Tricia is sleeping and I'm playing a game on my phone when an envelope slips under the door.

We have been upgraded.

The letter is short, a few sentences that describe our new circumstances on Sara Lane Enterprises letterhead, with Sara Lane's swooping signature in real ink taking up the bottom third of the page.

"What is that?" Tricia says. She sits up, sniffs the air.

"A letter," I say.

"What is that smell?" Tricia says. She sniffs the air again, rolls onto her back and pulls a pillow over her face.

"Dear Mr. Johnson and Ms. Lebout," I read. "I'm happy to let you know that you have been upgraded to a first class suite on the Dolly Parton Deck. Please call the cruise office at your earliest convenience to have your essentials moved to your beautiful new room. Your friend, Sara Lane."

Tricia sits up, reaches out a hand and I give her the letter. "And a shitload of that, what, signature perfume?"

For the first time, I notice the smell. Sweet, almost syrupy. The letter has been doused in it and the entire little cabin smells like a Victoria's Secret and feels all of the sudden cramped, clammy and fecundant, as if another entity had squeezed itself into our room and has been slowly expanding.

Tricia starts pulling her things out of the built-in drawers below the bed, dropping them into the suitcase again. "First class suite," she says. She nods, like it was something that was going to happen all along, like finally it did happen and it all makes sense.

"Are you sure?" I say. "Sure we want to . . ." I can't quite find the words. I look around the little cabin. There's no view and just this one room and the bathroom, and our feet both stick out over the end of the bed, and the one time we've had sex in here we had to cover our mouths to avoid scandalizing the neighbors. But really, it's fine.

"First. Class. Suite." Tricia says.

"I don't know," I say.

Tricia stops putting things in her bag. "Look," she says. "It's not our fault what this lady did. It's not going to make any point if we refuse. Crazy lady got herself into trouble and now she's going to make herself feel better."

"But that's just it," I say. I look to where a window would be but there's just a wall. This room is smaller than my bathroom at home. "Is it just, she's trying to make herself feel better? Or is there, like, something else happening here?"

"Should I have not come on this trip?" she says.

"You're right," I say. I pick up the letter and wave it around like a lottery ticket and the perfume smell wafts up in my face. "Of course you're right."

 

The new room is about ten times larger than the old one, which is to say it's roughly the size of two regular hotel rooms put together. Tricia walks right to the little patio and slides open the doors. Outside, the ocean is loud and gray.

Two porters move our things into the master suite and I stand there with Tricia, looking out at the ocean. We're holding hands and the waves roll one into the next and we can smell the salt air and it really is lovely. This is what it is all about, I tell myself. I try to tip the head porter and he shakes his head no, pushes the money back into my fingers and stuff his hands into his pockets. "Orders of Mrs. Lane," he says.

"Are you from the Caribbean?" I guess at his accent.

He pauses, seems to be considering whether to reply at all. "Bajan," he says, finally. "Barbados."

"I thought so!" I say.

"Have an excellent cruise, sir," he says. On the dining room table, there is a fresh bouquet of tropical flowers and a letter on Sara Lane stationary. This one is handwritten and drenched in even more perfume than the first: "I do like to make my friends feel welcome," it reads, "and thank you for doing the same for me. Please be my guest tonight—and guest judge!—at our Guy Sterling Make Your Own Margarita Contest!"

I had been planning to order in room service, have a quiet night in our new room. But the margarita contest is one of the things Tricia had circled on the itinerary. Be spontaneous, I tell myself. Be fun. Margaritas are fun.

Tricia is back to the window and she has her arms folded over her chest. She is beautiful and smart and like a buttress up against the rest of the world and when I'm with her I don't have to worry about anything. "How do you imagine one dresses," I say, "to judge a margarita contest?"

 

A short, middle-aged woman in a business suit comes to tell us that Sara Lane is working late in her office and will not be able to join us. "Well that's a shame," Guy Sterling says. I nod and sip at my water. Tricia slurps from the two-foot-tall concoction placed in front of her like a bouquet or a tropical bird. "But we do have a special treat for you all," the woman says, smiling. "In her place, Mrs. Lane has sent along Olean!"

"Well I'll be," Guy Sterling says. He smiles and drinks from his beer. "I reckon I better get me another one of these here then."

From the entrance, we hear a laugh and then a whoop. The word "Olean" slithers through the room. I turn to Tricia but she is busy talking with Guy Sterling's date, a beautiful thirtyish woman with a Russian accent who has been steadily drinking gin and tonics for the past half hour. I'm trying to put out of my head that my fellow guests almost certainly think I'm some kind of minor celebrity: a hip hop artist, a baseball player, or a bit actor on a third rate cable show. I have been asked to sign autographs, each a shrugging coda to the more exciting prospect of obtaining Guy Sterling's autograph. Tricia has signed them, too, as has the Russian model. They are having a ball, Tricia writing Kerry Washington's name with a flourish, the model writing the letter M with a condescending nod to each supplicant. I feel terrible, guilty. With each piece of paper I sign, I feel like I'm digging myself deeper into whatever this is, one unrecognizable and embarrassed squiggle at a time.

"You're in for a treat now, man," Guy Sterling says. Everything he says sounds like he's reciting a line from a made-for-television western, and this time he actually touches the brim of his cowboy hat and points.

The chatter ramps up and I can track the progress of the new guest by the way people keep popping up from their tables to greet him. It's like tracking a pod of dolphins from the shore: every now and then a little scurry and a table full of people pop up. Finally, he's standing in front of us, a short older man with graying hair and a handlebar mustache. He is wearing a white suit with a bow tie, a modern-day Mark Twain. His eyes are bright, clear and intelligent. "Well I'll be," he says. "If it ain't Guy Goddam Sterling. In the flesh."

Guy Sterling stands. "Olean Goddam Lane," he says. "Still standing."

"I reckon that's enough to celebrate on," Olean says. He twists his handlebar mustache and nods at the waiter. "Bourbon rocks," he says. He introduces himself to Tricia and the model. I realize that we're all standing, that I've stood along with the rest. The old man is familiar, of course: Sara Lane's brother is a frequent guest on her show and a restaurateur in his own right. Lately, I've seen him on the news, defending his sister and explaining how their upbringing might have led her to say the kinds of things she said on that tape.

His bourbon arrives and we sit. He makes small talk with Guy Sterling and I watch Tricia and the model whispering. What could they possibly be talking about? I feel a hand on my own. It is warm, calloused and hard. Hands that have done some work. Olean squeezes and leans over. "Hey man," he says in a low voice. "I just want to say thank you. To you and your lovely girlfriend there."

"Thank you?" I whisper.

"We really appreciate it," he says. "You all are helping us out here."

 

We're finished up with the contest, which wasn't so much a contest as it was Olean drinking one margarita after the next, complimenting each passenger on their unique style and slipping out to smoke cigarettes on the deck between drinks. Tricia and the model and Guy Sterling have disappeared, off to check out some other lounge where the model knows the bartender. I've been sipping at margaritas and listening to Olean and Guy Sterling trade stories about everything from the University of Tennessee to fake breasts to the best way to avoid alligators in a Louisiana swamp.

I excuse myself to the bathroom and they both pause, nod, and go back to their conversation. I'm standing in front of a urinal, next to a red-faced, portly man with gray hair and a University of Tennessee shirt. "Quite a time, huh?" he says.

Even in here, the country music trickles, Guy Sterling singing about lassos and love.

"Yes," I say. "Quite a time indeed."

"Old Olean." He says it like an exclamation, like that single word is all one would need to hear, like he's saying "hurricane" or "evacuate" or "guilty."

"Indeed," I say.

I zip up and move over to wash my hands.

"Indeeeeed," he says. He is breathing loudly and I wonder if I would be able to revive him in the case of a heart attack, a thought I've found myself having twenty times a day on this cruise. "Indeeeeed, says the man," he wheezes, sarcasm dripping into his voice now. He fumbles with his zipper and I realize that he is even drunker than Olean himself. "Mind me asking a question, there, son?" he says.

His voice has changed, the aw shucks washed out with venom, like he's substituted "son" for "boy."

I grab a paper towel and feel for the door. He takes a few halting steps toward me. His zipper is open and his shirt untucked. His face is nearly the same orange as his shirt.

"What the hell did you do to get to sit with the stars, huh?" he says. "Who the fuck do you think you are, anyway," he says, "to be on this cruise, sitting with Guy Sterling and Olean Lane and that lady from the commercial for that car?"

I open the door and he comes closer. In the background, the sound of the ocean and a line dancing country song. "Whothefuckareyou?" he says, and pokes a finger in my chest. My hands are clenched. He is maybe five feet six, two hundred fifty pounds. "Or did you just get a handout? Like how you people do??" he says. I open my mouth to speak but nothing comes out. The ocean roars in my head. "A fucking handout!" he says again, daring me to speak. I'm sweating, my hands shaking. The man smiles but there's no mirth in it. He wipes his hands on his pants, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and slides one between his lips. "Yeah," he says. "That's what I thought."

 

I make my way toward the table, where Guy Sterling and Olean are still engaged in conversation. Their heads are close together, each with a beer bottle and a glass of brown liquor in front of them. I don't know whether I should say anything or not. We have been made to feel welcome, been told that this feeling is important, and I've had just enough tequila to possibly follow up on these promises.

I get closer and can hear Olean talking to Guy Sterling. "What I don't understand," he says, "is what the hell they're doing here." I take a step closer, open my mouth, try to think of something casual. Olean takes a drink, shakes his head. "I mean, thank goodness they are because it'll help, you know. Don't think there ain't been pictures. We ain't fucking stupid, even if she acts like that sometimes." He finishes his drink. "But I mean, seriously, what were they even thinking, man, you know?"

"How they are," Guy Sterling says, with a finality that's all the more cutting for how casually he tosses it off. They both nod.

"How they are," Olean says. He gestures to a waitress, a Haitian I've spoken to on more than one occasion. She is pretty and young and this is her first Sara Lane cruise. "Two more, sweetheart," Olean says. She nods and turns toward the bar. Both men watch her retreat. I take one step back and then another. I try to melt into the wall, the way I would in the subway or a holiday party. But it's no use here. I see people staring, wondering why that comedian or baseball player or singer is leaning against the wall while his friends Olean and Guy Sterling drink bourbon.

I sneak to the bar, order three shots of tequila. I drink one and walk out toward the deck with a shot in each hand. Before I feel the salt air on my face, they're gone.

 

It's dark in the room and I stub a toe on a kitchen chair, sit down on the floor. I've left the door open and I don't care and somewhere in the back of my mind, something registers: I am very, very drunk.

"Tricia!" I shout. "Pack your bags we're getting the fuck out of here. These people . . ." The bedroom door is closed, a dim light throwing rectangles on the plush carpeting. I throw a shoe at the door. "Fucking racists. Racists. I knew it but . . . fucking . . ." I search my mind for the right term. All I can think about is that redneck, sticking his finger in my chest. My own silence. The smile on the man's face, his eyes too-close and porcine, like Ned Beatty in Deliverance. I throw my other shoe and a light goes on.

I stretch out on my back, look up at the perfect eggshell ceiling. I can hear the white noise of the engines, the ocean in the distance, Tricia moving around, fumbling for her glasses, keys jingling, feet scuffing across the floor. Then something else. A man's voice, whispering. The bedroom door opens and Guy Sterling emerges, holding his hat and jacket in his hand. The model follows behind. He gives me a businesslike nod. "That wasn't smart," he says casually, like he is remarking on the color of the all-leather sofa or the consistency of Sara Lane's trademark biscuit. He tips his hat. "Not smart at all."

The model sneers. "Some people," she says, and follows Guy Sterling through the door. I know she's right, but for the life of me, I can't put my finger on exactly why.

 

I'm pushing at my signature biscuit, watching Tricia do the same, watching my reflection brood in her dark glasses, when I hear the laugh again. We all hear it and we all stop. She works her way through the crowd in the way we've all grown accustomed to now, pausing and laughing and complimenting and then expertly moving on, a small ice breaker in a dining room full of icebergs.

"What should . . ." I say, but Tricia just pushes her plate away, adjusts her sunglasses, sits sideways in her chair.

"Should we, like, get out of here?" I say.

"Why?" she says.

I stare at her, but all I see is my reflection in her dark glasses.

Finally the orange-y glob of Sara Lane comes into view, her bodyguards close behind. She sits without asking, pours herself a glass of orange juice. "Fresh squeezed," she says. "That's something I insisted on. Some things, I don't know, people might not even know."

"Uh huh," Tricia says, in the way she does that's half agreement, half challenge.

I find myself nodding my head.

"So…." Sara Lane says. "I understand we have a misunderstanding." The honey is gone from her voice, the accent ratcheted down several notches, and she sounds like nothing so much as a judge casually opening a case between two people who should know better. "We'll talk," she says. "Up in the office." She stands and walks toward the back of the dining room.

Tricia shakes her head. "I'll see you in the room," she says. The first words she's said to me since we've been awake. She turns and walks toward Guy Sterling and the model at the bar. Guy Sterling signals the bartender. Tricia leans over and whispers something and they laugh.

I break apart my biscuit, push the pieces toward the edges of the plate. I wonder if there's a way to get off this boat. I wonder if I'll ever see Tricia again after all this. I stand and follow Sara Lane like I have been told.

 

Sara Lane sits behind a large desk. Too large. She is sunk down, only a foot or so above the desk, straining to make herself as tall as possible, like a toddler in a passenger seat. "This is not my office," she says, by way of explanation. She finds the level to adjust the chair and shoots up a full two feet, times her stop perfectly so her eyes are a few inches higher than mine. I fight the urge to look under the desk to confirm that her feet are dangling above the floor. She waits, silent while I fidget, and I'm sure it's some kind of negotiating tactic, one of those annoyingly effective practices taught by used car managers and how-to-succeed-in-business books from the Fifties.

I know I should wait her out, that we're in a contest now. But I've never been good at contests, at games. The only one I've ever won, literally, is the one that put me in this chair in the first place.

As the time drew closer, I half expected somebody to put two and two together, to remember that maybe I wasn't the best recipient for this gift valued at four thousand nine hundred and ninety nine dollars. But of course, nobody put two and two together because nobody knew me well enough to do the math.

"So . . ." I say. "Captain's office?"

Sara Lane smiles but tries to hide it and I know I'm right about the books she's read, the game I just lost.

"Not today," she says. She leans forward and I know I'm supposed to lean back and I try like hell to not do it, but I'm sure it's there, a faint pulling away, the pissy whiff of submission. "Today this is my office. Today Captain Carver will have to file his logs from some other place. Because today this is mine."

"Right," I say.

"Today. Here. Is where me and you come to an agreement, once and for all."

"I didn't know . . ." I say, looking around at the photos on the walls—ships, men in uniform, a family dressed all in white smiling on a beach somewhere—"I didn't know that we had a disagreement."

She laughs that laugh, bark bark bark, and slaps a hand on the table. "Well I didn't either," she says, her voice full of sunshine and honey, lemonade and sugar cookies. "Until I talked to my brother this morning."

I look at the pictures, the books that line the shelves, the floor under my feet. I search for the words. How to explain. Finally I look up. Her eyes are bright blue, unblinking. Her hair is a yellow corona, teased and sprayed into place as sure as a baseball hat. I realize she is still staring, is fighting the urge to blink. "I don't know what you thought you heard," she says. "But Olean and Guy Sterling have never been anything but respectful toward our friends of the opposite color. This I know."

"I heard what I heard," I say. Opposite color?

"Did you?" she says. She's smiling again, the sugar returned to her voice. "Are you sure?" She gives me a look like she's offering a way out, like I would be a smart little boy if I went ahead and took it. "Because sometimes, as I'm sure you would agree, you just never can tell."

I have no idea what to say, what kind of contest I'm losing right now. I wait her out.

She has something in her hand but I'm not sure what. She sits on the desk, a full head taller than me now. The thing in her hand is a cell phone, of course—smaller, thinner, more silver than any I have seen before. She taps a long red nail on the desk: tap tap tap. "Here's the thing," she says. "Maybe I can give you a little lesson. Show you how things are."

"How are things?" I say, trying for action movie cool, but my voice comes out thin and weepy.

"I text 'stop now' to this number," she says, "and the boat goes dark. No power. Just one text and we're back in the dark ages, drifting on the ocean. Watch out for icebergs!" She screams this last word, slaps the table—icebergs!—and I jump.

"Two words," she says. "I text two little bitty teeny tiny words." She puts the phone down and looks at me.

I scan the floor. In the corner, a handful of Lego pieces are scattered around and I wonder if they're from the captain's child. Grandchild, maybe. Sara Lane types in her phone and clicks a button. I wonder what Tricia is doing now, if her things will still be in the room when I get back.

Suddenly, a thin, metallic sound, like a lever closing, a quick thunk. Then the lights go out. Then a grinding deep beneath us. The boat shakes, rolls gently, and I'm reminded that this whole time we've been moving, grinding forward, that I've been sitting five stories up in a floating building and never really thought about it until the whole thing stopped. The white noise is noticeably absent, the silence is terrifying.

"Happy?" she says.

The ship drifts left. I can hear the ocean crashing against the bow, so far below us. I shouldn't be here. I should be sitting on some ridiculously named deck, drinking fruity drinks and watching Tricia rub sunblock on her legs.

The ship rolls to the left, to the right. I hear people shouting, alarms sounding deep in the machinery of the boat. "You have to . . . " I say. "You have . . ."

She holds up the phone. "Make it start up again?" she says. I nod. "You have a good . . . what's the way to say it? You have a good sense now how this works?"

I nod.

"This being the world, that is," she says.

I stare at her and she stares back and the game has started up again. I blink immediately, look toward the door and the sound of people running in the hallways. Another kind of alarm has sounded. I smell smoke and consider for the first time that this could be more than just Sara Lane showing me who is boss.

"What's that?" she says. "That's not . . ." she stands, then sits back down. She texts and then waits. I smell smoke. People are still running outside, alarms going off. "Shit," Sara Lane says. "Shit shit shit." She taps at the phone and then stares at it, taps again. The smoke is getting stronger and we both stand. She throws the phone at me and it bounces off my chest, takes my breath away briefly and then she is gone and I'm standing in the room alone, listening to people running outside. I picture Tricia sitting in our room on the Dolly Parton deck, waiting for Guy Sterling to come save her, for a porter to carry her bags to a waiting lifeboat. "A good sense of how this works," Sara Lane said. "This being the world."

It's getting harder to the breathe and the boat lists to the left so much that everything falls off the desk, the world tilting under my feet. I pick up Sara Lane's phone and I sit down behind the captain's chair, and I wait.