To die, to sleep — to sleep, perchance to dream — ay, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause?
— Hamlet Soliloquy
“For God’s sake try to get some sleep,” she muttered. “Every time you toss and turn like that, you let the cold air in.”
I told her I couldn’t sleep; it was one of those nights. She grumbled unladylike obscenities and tried to cocoon herself in the blankets. I crawled out of bed and dressed in the clothes I had on yesterday.
Then I went and leaned my forehead against the windows, face to face with the Stygian abyss. There was no vibration in the window glass, no light at all in the darkness. I couldn’t hear a thing, and wondered if the big storm wind had gone.
I remembered when I was a teenager living on the Beaches and we had to evacuate when a big hurricane came stomping straight onshore. We stopped in Jacksonville and checked into the old Roosevelt Hotel. The only rooms left were on the top floor. I was mesmerized by the metronome-like swing of the chain from the ceiling fan in the stillness of the room.
My grandfather said the arc of that chain measured how far the hotel was leaning back and forth in the wind. I knew he must be pulling my leg; tall hotel buildings don’t wave in the wind like palm trees. The works of man are immovable as mountains. Weren’t they? I walked into the bathroom.
There was no water in the toilet bowl.
Before I could say anything, water came back in a rush, like a reverse flush. The bowl kept filling and filling like it was going to overflow. I started to speak — and the bowl emptied itself of every drop with a peculiar rattling gurgle. I yelled in surprise.
The bowl was refilling itself when they came in to look. My grandmother said all the water, pressurized in the vast labyrinth of pipes in the hotel, was sloshing back and forth when the building swayed. I didn’t believe her, and went to the window and pressed my face against the glass.
Hurricane wind moaned around the corners of the building like some angry beast. The glass vibrated. Power lines had been down for more than a day, but the city had an underground grid. Downtown glittered like an abandoned circus midway, myriad neon signs and lighted windows and traffic lights. Traffic lights thrashed back and forth in wide arcs, as if trying to rip free, while the green-yellow-red went through its methodical cycle. A police patrol car inched across an intersection; the wind caught it, and it skidded sideways on the wet pavement.
Directly below me, street lights in front of the hotel were visible — and then they weren’t. Then they were. Pressed against the thrumming glass I could feel my whole body lean with the building, then lean back. It was one of those stunned moments of realization that the world could be a very unsettling and dangerous place…
“Are you ever going to come back to bed?” she said.
Her irritation was building up toward one of her temper tantrums. I was irritated myself: she had interrupted a chain of memories long forgotten. I had been lost in the comparison between that long-ago hotel-room window’s vibrations and this one, black and motionless. I didn’t like her interrupting my meditation.
I told her I was going down to see if the hotel snack bar was open for breakfast. She gave an exasperated sigh and got out of bed and started dressing, complaining her raincoat was still soaking wet so she’d have to use one of mine, piled on the floor. She sorted through every one and tried on two or three before she was satisfied. I didn’t bother to say I hadn’t invited her; it wasn’t worth another vicious, cutting little fight.
We crossed the hotel roof from our penthouse suite to the elevator. By the time the car came, our coats were streaming as if we’d walked through a waterfall. I had to clamp my hat on my head to keep the shrieking wind from taking it. All that tropical violence had been completely blocked out by our suite. Maybe construction had caught up with my teenage confidence in the immovable nature of man-made structures.
Once in the elevator, the lights behind the buttons flickered a couple of times. The floor seemed to roll like the deck of a ship in a ground swell. Her eyes widened, and she said bitterly if we got stuck in the elevator she would kill me. Any romance had long since died out of our relationship.
The lobby was brightly lighted, a lot of people coming and going quietly with that suppressed air of tension you get in hurricanes and war zones. We didn’t immediately go downstairs to the basement snack bar but listened to the conversation. I asked a man what was happening and he said a tidal surge had all but obliterated vacation cottages along the ocean shore and rolled on inland.
“Will we have to evacuate?” I asked him.
He laughed. “No, no, it’s not quite that bad. It won’t reach the city. But the bay is coming up as the tide gets full. Waves are coming across the street and smashing into bay-front properties.”
I started down to the snack bar. She told me to order her a stack of hotcakes and coffee. But when I got to the door a man coming out with a paper sack said the place was closing. I hurried inside. A lone waitress at the counter told me they were already closed, she was the last one left, getting ready to lock up. I asked if there were any restaurants in walking distance and she laughed at me.
“You’re not going walking in that.” She jerked her head at the ceiling. “Anyway all the restaurants close at nine on Wednesday.”
That’s what she said. It didn’t make a bit of sense. I realized I didn’t know what time it was. I get like that on those insomnia nights: all turned around, calling whatever mealtime it happened to be breakfast when I gave up trying to sleep. Back in the lobby one of the seminar hosts told us there was coffee and pastries in the flag- officers’ navigation seminar on the top floor of the hotel’s other wing. Under the circumstances we were welcome to go up and help ourselves.
There must have been thirty or forty men in the meeting room. Several different nations’ Navy uniforms, a few in mufti, they sat on chairs ranged along the walls with notebooks and pocket calculators on their laps. Incomprehensible math problems were flashed on a big overhead screen.
We filled our plates and cups and found seats, not together. What conversation I could make out had to do with maintaining steerage-way in a typhoon. But there was very little conversation. The mood in the room was terribly tense. One of the men in U.S. Navy whites, with the four gold stripes of a captain was playing idly with a nickel-plated revolver with ivory grips. A Georgie Patton gun. Completely incongruous given the surroundings, but no one paid any attention.
Not until he calmly lifted the revolver to his right temple and blew his brains all over people sitting to his left. There were a few muted curses in a tone of disgust as the men — and my girlfriend — tried to wipe themselves clean. Then several men picked his slumped body off the chair and carefully laid him by the door, straightening him out with a touching solicitude until he was just so, with his captain’s scrambled-eggs cap concealing as much of his scrambled skull as possible. Then they went back to their notebooks and calculators. No place to take him until the huge storm ran its course.
My girlfriend picked up the revolver and played with it, checking the loadings, looking at each cartridge and then replacing it. I couldn’t remember whether she was one I’d taught to handle firearms, or one who came to me with that knowledge, which seemed a strange thing to forget. But I was more interested in the fact everyone else ignored her completely as they had ignored the dead captain. It seemed an omen.
Immediately confirmed when she cocked the revolver, placed it to her temple and fired. I had the uncharitable thought it was a nasty way to get in the last word in our interminable quarrels. I did not volunteer to help them lay her out beside the dead captain. Her personality had proven so full of nasty twists and turns I didn’t believe for a minute she was dead. Her head seemed intact. The blood on her face and clothing probably were from the captain’s suicide.
She was pulling some kind of stunt again. I refused to play. They laid her out gently and returned to their work. The seminar leader stepped to the center of the room and said he had received notification all present were to return to their ships and prepare to steam to sea to ride out the rest of the storm. We filed out past the two still forms without looking at them. In front of the hotel was a school bus painted Navy gray. We filed aboard and were driven to the bay, dropped off in small groups along the finger piers where our ships were tied up.
My girlfriend and I had been members of a tour group aboard a long, lean four-stack destroyer from another era, refitted as a tourist boat. It was already making steam when I came up the swaying gangway, hunched against rain going sideways, hitting as hard as shotgun pellets. The tour conductor didn’t ask about my missing girlfriend and I didn’t volunteer anything.
Our four-star cabin suite was equipped with our own furniture. I sat in my oversize La-Z-Boy recliner and kicked back. Beyond the big portholes the bay was a seething cauldron of four-foot waves. Underway, the heavy old tin can knifed through them with just a gentle roll and sway, comforting as I imagined a cradle to be. I never suffered insomnia on a ship. I closed my eyes.
WHEN I WOKE up hours later the ship had stopped moving. I had slept halfway around the clock and we were docked somewhere else. The wide gray water beyond the portholes was much more tranquil. It looked as if we had steamed out of the storm.
Breakfast — finally! — was being served in the tourist dining room. The tour conductor was moving among the tables, helping group members fill out cargo manifests. He told me to be sure to list all my personal furniture and any identifying features, as well as the shipping destination if different from pieces belonging to my girlfriend. Her paperwork was already filled out. When I looked at the address, she hadn’t directed her things be sent back to our apartment. A subtle, almost Asian way to indicate we were finally over. I asked him when she had filled out the paperwork.
“This morning, before you came out of your cabin.”
Okay, that was strange. “Here? On the ship?”
“Yes of course. But she’s gone ashore now.”
I craned my neck to try to see through the big salon windows to the crowded dock below. A lot of people were moving around among big shipping trucks here to pick up our personal furniture. I thought I saw John, and remembered that he had one of the pistols I purchased on the voyage without resort to required legal paperwork. Well I could catch him up at work Monday. I’d made several nice purchases for good prices and had two of them tucked in the inside pockets of my leather jacket — a pristine Colt Cobra with the bolt-on hammer shroud and a Smith&Wesson Bodyguard with integral hammer shroud and the rare three-inch barrel, lightly used.
“Your girlfriend asked me to give you this,” the tour conductor said, and handed me a flat blue plastic box. I snapped open the catches, and there was the dead Navy captain’s six-inch nickel Colt Python with ivory grips. God damn it, I knew she had been pulling some kind of trick at the flag-officer’s meeting.
I left the ship with just my rolling suitcase, and joined the people watching our furniture being loaded. I hadn’t caught sight of John. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see my girlfriend. No, that was wrong: I definitely did not want to see her. I was beginning to feel that intense sense of liberation that comes once a bad relationship is irrevocably over. I walked over into the ship company’s area, where crewmen were sorting equipment for storage and bringing out supplies for the next voyage. One of the ship’s officers who had sold me two guns offered me a small stirrup-cup for a morning “heart starter.” Grand Marnier; the orange-flavored brandy smoothed a warm path down my gullet.
“You know anything about those?” He pointed at the sky.
Fragile-looking aircraft, like a cross between a motorized hang- glider and a World War One biplane, circled slowly overhead. The resemblance to ancient warplanes was strongest in a red triple-wing aircraft. The ship’s officer handed me binoculars. The red plane had German crosses on the wings, playing at being the Red Baron.
I knew before I focused on the pilot in his leather helmet and goggles it was my girlfriend’s husband. The other fliers were kids, hardly out of their teens. As I watched, they paid out rope from their cockpits. At the end of the ropes traceries of smoke steamed off round black objects that pendulumed with the motion of their fragile craft. Cartoonish-looking black-powder bombs, for God’s sake.
One by one, they released the smoking bombs as they passed above the passageway to the main terminal. The ropes whipped down behind the black spheres like kite tails. “Should we be worried?” the ship’s officer said.
If he said anything else I didn’t hear it. The bombs started going off, one after the other, raising tall black columns of smoke. Glass shattered in the main terminal. Slabs of mud and marsh grass flew up over the passageway. But that was all.
“Look, the Red Baron is landing over there,” the ship’s officer said.
The red tri-plane landed out beyond the marsh, lost to sight. The other little planes drifted away. People went back to work loading furniture and ship’s stores. I was wishing I had ammunition for my pocket pistols; the Red Baron was not my friend. And here he came, knee-high lace-up boots, leather jacket with a sheep-skin collar, idiotic matinee-idol mustache.
“You can’t take her furniture,” he said to me. “It’s really my furniture. I paid for it.” I told him I had no intention of taking her damn furniture; it was already consigned to some city I’d never lived in. He didn’t believe me, of course. He started running up and down the line of trucks, pulling things off pallets, looking for her stuff. Truck drivers and tourists yelled at him and started forward, but stopped when he put his hand on the Luger at his belt.
He went right back to his frenetic snooping, and thought he’d found her maroon recliner on the pallet with my big La-Z-Boy, and dragged it out. A big old red-faced man in Bermuda shorts marched up to him and told him to leave his stuff alone or he’d make him eat the damn Luger, like he had done to real Krauts before him. Maybe not all bullies are cowards, but her husband was. He started backing and filling, apologizing.
I saw her recliner and other stuff on a different pallet and yelled at him. He came over, read the destination on the label, and finally believed me. “So she finally left you too,” he said. “I’m sorry. I wish we lived in a science-fiction world and could clone her so we could both have her.” I’m telling you, the man was mad as a Hatter.
He wandered off through the crowd while I struggled with the realization my companion on this voyage had never been married. My affair with the bully’s wife had been decades ago, and I had no sense of liberation when she left me, just utter devastation. It took a long time to recover. So why had time slipped, and brought this idiot with his teenage hang-gliding bombers to bother me? I had been reading some Buddhist stuff recently — maybe this was karma?
I walked across the busy loading dock, and saw my girlfriend, lying in state with her hands crossed on her breasts, dressed in a long white dress with fancy lace worked through it. “Our wedding dress,” the Red Baron said behind me.
“That’s insane,” I said. “You were never married to her.”
“It’s the dress I bought her. My wife. I knew you had it!”
I wanted to say no way on earth could his wife’s dress fit the woman lying there; no piece of clothing could be let out that much. But she had always been obsessively worried about her weight. It seemed cruel to say in her hearing. I knew damn good and well she wasn’t dead. She had filled out her furniture manifest just this morning.
But why did the Red Baron care where this woman never his wife sent her furniture? My head was starting to ache like an incipient migraine when the ship’s engineering officer ran past us, yelling the engine room was on fire. Smoke billowed out of a hatch. He disappeared into the greasy smoke, yelling for a fire-control party. Sailors dropped their dockside work and ran after him.
I looked at the Red Baron. He was grinning. “That’ll teach ’em to allow somebody to sleep with a married woman on their damn tours,” he said.
When I looked back, my girlfriend was gone from the tilted pallet she had been lying on. But the wedding dress was there, empty. The Red Baron made a happy sound and grabbed it. I needed a drink. But the ship’s officer with the brandy was now aboard ship, fighting the engine-room fire. I walked up the mud-spattered gangway into the big reception hall.
People were sitting at small tables with drinks. I stopped at the bar. For just a moment I thought I saw my girlfriend, going out the front door toward shore in the clothes she had worn last night, including my way-too-big raincoat. One of my shipboard purchases was in that coat: a stainless-steel Model 92 Beretta with Trijicon Night Sights and three stainless fifteen-round magazines. I had forgotten where I put it, and now she was stealing it. I forgot Grand Marnier and started after her.
The ship’s horn sounded, a loud blast that shook the room. I looked toward the dock. The damn thing was moving, coming right at the frosted plate-glass windows, a looming ominous shape. The high bow knifed through the glass in seeming slow motion. Also in seeming slow motion, the people at the little tables scattered frantically trying to get out of the way.
There were horrid grinding sounds and the sound of falling, shattering glass. I couldn’t move. Just stared as the ship’s prow plowed closer and closer. It stopped little more than arm’s length away. Broken glass kept tinkling somewhere. I heard voices far above me on the ship’s deck and bent my head way back to look. A rope came down and almost before the end hit the ground, my friendly shipboard gun dealer came swarming down it, his officer’s whites grimy and soot-stained from fire-fighting.
He landed lightly, stood and stretched. “Well, that put the fire out. Clear case of sabotage. Probably that Red Baron asshole, huh?”
“Nothing can surprise me now,” I said.
“How about another drink?” He pulled the bottle of Grand Marnier, unbroken, out of his hip pocket. Trust a sailor to protect the booze was the last thought I remember — before I woke up. I was so tired I wondered if I would wet myself before I could muster the strength to get to the bathroom.
At least moribund sleepers of Hamlet’s soliloquy don’t face weak bladders in the grave.