Harald's Great Vacation

Published in Lumina Spring 2004 Number 3

Harald was having trouble packing. The little canvas suitcase lay on the bed, its asthmatic mouth agape as if no amount of air could satisfy its need, as if its windpipe were swollen shut and only the sucking force of its overworked lungs could pull enough air past its unhinged jaws to keep it alive. Harald had already rolled a small blanket into a neat bedroll and placed it in the suitcase. He had also rolled into a tight pack a small quilt that lay at the foot of the bed for ornamentation and placed it next to the blanket. Something made him uncomfortable. He stopped. He felt as if he were throttling the suitcase, as if it might gag at any moment.

“Nancy, I’m done with the shirts. Where did you put my slacks?” he called out to the empty space beyond the bedroom door. “And where’s that bottle of Chivas? I want to bring it.”

Through the bathroom window Harald heard the low boom of the cruise ship’s horn in the distance. The sound had a dying fall like a basso profundo wailing at the gods, very manly but with a tailend note of sadness.

“Nancy, where’s that bottle of Chivas?” he called again. Harald considered looking in the bathroom, but his stubborn feet refused to cooperate. Each foot expected the other to begin. Then they both tried to go first. Then they deferred to each other with an overly polite series of No, you firsts. Harald tried to get his knees to force the issue. Sometimes that worked, but this time neither one seemed to understand what he was talking about. Instead his toes curled up and clawed the wood floor. Finally he pitched his upper body forward at a dangerous angle, an angle that suggested “fractured hip” without really saying it in so many words. His feet responded with tiny stutter steps that felt like butterflies flapping at his ankles. The stutter steps expanded into a shuffle and then a trudge.

Parker Brothers, he thought. No, that’s not it.

As he plodded across the floor the bathroom came into view. He stood before the bathroom door and looked in at his huge mahogany bar filled with liquor. He’d forgotten about that bar. The shine on the wood grinned at him. The bottles of hard liquor jostled each other almost imperceptibly to the eye, but they made a calm ringing sound of glass kissing glass, as if he were already at sea, the ship rolling gently on the swells. He glanced across the upper row at the Tequilas in gold, blue and corn colored bottles. That Mexican girl, the one with her toenails painted red. The way she looked at him on the beach with her skirt hiked up and tucked in at the waist. She’d been wading in the sandbars. She was wet midway up her thighs. They glistened. Like she could see his thoughts forming. If only the kids hadn’t been there. Anything might have happened. The kids.

“Nancy, what about the kids? Are they packed yet? We don’t have much time.”

“The kids aren’t here, Harry.” He heard Nancy calling in the distance. Why did she call him Harry? It irked him. As he turned to her voice she materialized in the bedroom, as if she had condensed instantly out of the mist of his thoughts. How did she do that? It was the damnedest thing.

“What do you mean ‘They’re not here’? I don’t have time for this. The boat’s here. I heard the horn.” He shuffled out of the bathroom.

“Harald, there’s no rush. Stop rushing. We have all the time in the world.”

“And where’s that bottle of Chivas? I want to pack it.”

“You’ll just have to find it, won’t you.”

My god the woman had aged. Just let herself go. He had to get used to it all over again every day when he woke and took his first look at her. And that voice, like she was talking to a child. He didn’t care for it.

Harald turned back to the bathroom. Where the hell did the bar go? He walked through the bathroom door into the winecellar. That’s right, there was a winecellar in here too. There wasn’t much light. He waited for his eyes to grow accustomed to the dark. Then he started gently twisting the bottles in the racks so he could read their labels. Don’t pick them up. That stirs up the sediment. There was a ’94 Gevrey-Chambartin. He couldn’t believe it. What was that doing there? Probably too late to drink the damn thing. What a waste. He couldn’t believe it. They’d bought that case for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. What a lovely party. The boys looked great. Very prosperous. Even Steve with his half-assed consulting company. Why he ever left Lockheed. Must have been out of his mind. And the girls talking a mile a minute cooking all day and then eating everything in sight. What a truly lovely party. And all those little kids. Who were all those little kids? Ill-mannered and noisy as hell. Very irritating. Not like his kids. Little Stevie in those blue shorts and the saddle shoes. Not a scuff mark on those shoes. And the way he sat at the dinnertable. Never an elbow on the table with that boy. Used his knife and fork very precisely. And Brucie. That boy had come a long way. A long way. That boy could be anything he wanted to be, if he would just make the effort. Where were those boys? Probably out on the back porch eating watermelon. Spitting the seeds for distance into the backyard and dribbling the red juice all over their necks and onto the collars of their t-shirts. Then the robins would come and clean up after them hopping around like the boys on their pogo sticks. Harald knew they weren’t packed. He started to feel agitated. He wanted to shout to Nancy to get the boys off those damn pogo sticks or finish their watermelon or whatever it was they were doing, but he didn’t have the air. His lungs felt like saranwrap, tissuethin. The air was thick.

He passed on the Gevrey-Chambartin. There was a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet lying next to it. That restaurant back east in Connecticut somewhere. With the stone dining room and that huge roaring fire. The old waiter was Italian. What a great accent. And the lines on his nose like little rivers of lava streaming down the side of a volcano. That guy was great. The whole menu in his head. Wouldn’t let him order the salmon. The rack of lamb. That was it. And he was right. They all had rack of lamb, even Stacie and her husband, that selfrighteous prick. God I hate that guy. Well he made a nice life for Stacie and she seemed to love him all right. So let’s get that bottle of Puligny. What do you say? Hey look how the old guy’s face lights up like Santa Claus. He’d make a good one.

“Isn’t this great?” Stacie asked. “I knew you’d love this place, Dad. This is your kind of place. With the fireplace and the winelist and wait till you taste the steak here. You’re gonna die.”

Listening to the hum of other voices. Everybody’s got their own lives, their own families, their own events to celebrate. Nice to be among them. And this great meal. The tang of the steak fat under his tongue. Candles glowing on the white tablecloth. Just sitting here sipping a martini looking at Stacie, what a beautiful girl. She’s got her mother’s laugh, doesn’t she, Nancy?

“Of course she does, dear. She’s got all the good genes, lucky girl. Doesn’t she Billy?”

“She’s my little surfer girl,” said Bill with his elbows on the table and a chicken leg in his hands, gnawing at it like its corn on the cob. Hasn’t even put his napkin on his lap. My god, he is obnoxious. She never set foot on a surfboard in her life. Brucie is the surfer.

Harald heard the low boom of the cruise ship’s horn again. It was getting very close. Any moment and it would be at the dock. Wait a second. What is going on here?

Harald felt a rising anxiety. His hands were shaking, but not that way. This was different. His fingers felt like they were going to explode.

Parking lot, he thought. No, that’s not it either.

Something was pressing on his chest just below his throat. He didn’t have time for this meal. “Stacie, are you packed? I don’t get it. Is Bill coming with you? I don’t think we’ve got a room for you both.” He hadn’t realized she was all grown up and married. What was he thinking? Why did he wait so long? He wanted to take this trip when the kids were still young. What had he been thinking?

“Nancy, I can’t find that goddamn bottle of Chivas!”

“Harald, you’ve been looking for that bottle of Chivas since you woke up this morning. What is the big deal?”

Harald went back to the bathroom, slowly, slowly, like an elephant on a tricycle. There was the bottle of Chivas sitting right on the medicine shelf. It looked just like a bottle of Listerine. No wonder he hadn’t been able to find it. The two bottles were very similar, weren’t they. He carried the bottle back to the bedroom, rolled it up in a handtowel and placed it snugly into the canvas suitcase among his shirts. Then he had second thoughts. What if the bottle opened accidentally on the voyage? Everything in the suitcase would be doused with alcohol. He gripped the bottle with list left hand around the neck. His hands shook mercilessly. Like they did when he came out of the ocean as a kid and stood in the wind and shivered. Packing crate, he thought. No, that doesn’t sound right.

With the right hand, he tested the bottle cap to see if it was screwed on tightly. He tried to loosen it, but it wouldn’t budge. Good. He gave it one more try. The bottle cap came off in his right hand unexpectedly. His left hand flung out like the hand of a trainman signaling with his lantern that the track was clear. As the hand came back, the bottle tipped toward him and splashed Tequila all over his pajamas. Oh jesus christ on a crutch.

And there was Nancy again like a rain drop precipitating around a dust mote in a cloud of water vapor.

“Oh my god, Harald. What on earth is going on in here? You smell like a dentist’s office. What happened? What have you got in your hand? Let me see it.”

“It’s the scotch. I finally found it.” He produced the bottle from behind his back where he’d been dangling it carelessly.

“Oh my god, you’ve spilled the Listerine all over yourself.”

“It’s the Chivas.”

“Fine, the Chivas. You spilled it all over yourself. Here give me the pajamas. Just step out of them. I’ll get you something clean to put on.”

Harald tried to step out of the left pant leg. He tried to raise the leg and shake it. The leg would not be lifted. He leaned on the bed with one hand and tried to reach down with the other to tug on the pajama bottoms. He inched them down bit by bit, one side and then the other until he had them off his hips and below his buttocks. He couldn’t reach any further. He swung his hips back and forth like a hula hoop to see if he could lower them a bit further.

Stacie came running into the bedroom wearing her camp shorts and t-shirt, barefoot and tanned, her blonde hair thick and tangled with sea salt. It’s almost white by the end of the summer. Her knees and elbows were caked with sand. “Let me try, Dad,” she said. “I can do it around my knees.” She took the hula hoop and rocked it around her knees, her hips and pelvis swaying back and forth.

“Take it outside, Stacie. That is not an indoor toy.” And out she went skipping. Great kid. Never a word back from that girl. “Sit down, Harald. Sit on the bed. I’ll help you.”

Harald sat down carefully trying not to fall back on the bed into a position from which he could not extricate himself. Nancy whisked the pajama bottoms off him in one tug. Then she unbuttoned the tops and was gone. Harald put both feet firmly on the ground, but he couldn’t get up. He leaned forward as if he were a folding chair and tried to lift his butt off the bed. It wouldn’t move. He reached for the brass handle on the door of the armoire and grabbed it. He yanked himself up. The door swung open. He caught a glimpse of someone in the armoire. He slammed the door shut and fell back on the bed. He pulled himself up again and peeked into the armoire. Something flashed in the mirror on the inside of the armoire door. A boy.

“Who are you? Come out of there. “What are you doing in there?” he demanded to know. Harald opened the door wide. He looked in the mirror and saw his naked self smirking back at him. What a bony mess I am. Not an ounce of fat on this kid. Not a lick of hair either. He knew his dick would thicken and grow hair someday. Like his old man’s when they peed into the toilet together before dinner and washed their hands in the cold water of the washstand. He didn’t like that word, dick. It was dirty and depressing. He knew that smoking cigarettes would put hair on his chest, so he smoked a cigarette every day on his way home from school. He walked behind the backyards along the creek so no one would see him. He smoked and chewed on long stems of grass. No, no, wait. How could I possibly go on a cruise? I’m just a kid. A kid can’t go on a cruise all by himself.

He sat back down on the bed without thinking. His breathing came heavily. The air was clotting up, coagulating, threatening to scab over hard and sore. His gaze fell on the armoire. A naked old skeleton of a man was sitting in there looking back at him with a drawn, fretful face. His jaw hung open. His eyes were watery. His bony shoulders seemed to be fighting their way out of his skin, desperate for a way to escape. A wispy highpressure cloud of hair passed over his chest. Skin hung wearily all over his body, on his neck, on his abdomen, from his biceps and elbows as if weighted down by the length of his life.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked in a civil but slightly impatient tone. “Are you some kind of stowaway? Where are your clothes? You look like hell. Get the hell out of there.” He reached forward and slammed the armoire door shut.

“Nancy,” he called with all his might, “Get in here I need you.” His voice would not come. It sounded like he was shouting under water. He tried to get a lungful of air, but his lungs were sealed shut, a ziploc bag vacuum sealed. The air was compacted now and twisted in knots as if it had been run through an iron mangle and the oxygen wrung out of it. He put his hand to his chest to fight off the panic and realized he was not dressed. He went back to the armoire and flung it open. The old man stood there gasping at him. “Get out of my way,” he hissed. He reached in the underwear drawer and took out his favorite rayon Hawaiian shirt. Why did she put my Hawaiian shirt in the underwear drawer? Never understand that woman. He tried to unbutton the buttons. His fingers worked nervously then gripped the shirt in frustration.

Parkinson’s, he thought. No, not Parkinson’s. What kind of a word is that? Must be losing my mind.

He pulled it over his head instead. He reached in the underwear drawer again and pulled out his best silk corduroy slacks. His best slacks in the underwear drawer. What was she thinking? He knew this was going to be trouble. He laid them on the floor and stepped into one pants leg and then the other. He reached down with aching extended fingers to get the waistband so he could pull the pants up. He began to wheeze with the effort. “I don’t have time for this,” he whispered. And then the pants were up and buttoned smartly at his waist. And there was his suede cowboy hat. He thought he’d lost it that time in San Francisco. He placed it on his head and stopped to admire the way the brim slouched gracefully over his forehead. No time for that now. He had to finish packing. He grabbed a fistful of pants from the t-shirt drawer and threw them on the bed next to the suitcase.

“Nancy, I found the pants. Never mind.” He began to fold them along the crease and lay them gently on top of the starched shirts. Shoes. He’d almost forgotten the shoes. He reached into the sock drawer and tossed everything on the bed. What were his shoes doing in the sock drawer? Didn’t matter. He stuffed the shoes into the corners of the suitcase.

That time in Florence. Those beautiful handcobbled alligator shoes with the tassels and rough stitching. The price was outrageous. He offered the smiling man with the moustache a handful of paper lire. The man laughed and waved his hand dismissively. “Cento mille,” he said plaintively. The aroma of the shoes, the soft stained apron the cobbler wore around his thick waist, the way the bib hung from his neck like the bosom of a wellkept matron, the sad wooden floor that gave in so thoughtfully to stiff new soles and hardedged heels.

“Cinquanta mille” Harald said firmly.

The man laughed and wiped his hands dismissively on the hips of his apron. “No, no,” he said as he wrapped the shoes carefully in tissue paper before putting them back in the box, “Cento mille.”

“I have to have those shoes,” he said to Nancy.

“It’s only money, Harald. If you want the shoes, you want the shoes.”

Harald dipped into his new calfskin wallet and handed over the cento mille lire.

“Grazie. Grazie,” said the man with the moustache crinkling the bills in his dark spotted hands. Harald thanked him kindly and put the shoes in the suitcase along the back edge.

Again the low boom of the ship’s horn. This time it felts like it was going right through him. He heard the uproar of voices and ship’s bells ringing urgently. He looked out the window. There it was. Twenty stories high if it was an inch. Brightest white all the way down to the waterline. His breath came in shudders. The air was hardening all around him, growing translucent, the light diffuse.

“It’s here, Nancy. It’s here. Get the kids. Get their suitcases.” He tried to zipper the suitcase shut. He couldn’t get the zipper to slide.

“Come on, come on,” said the canvas suitcase. “Zip me up.”

“All aboard,” he heard someone shout from somewhere up above. Bells rang. The crowd hollered. The rumbling of the engines shook the floor beneath him. Another blast from the ship’s horn. This one felt like it was coming from inside his head. “Last call,” he heard again from above. “All aboard that’s coming aboard. Wellwishers, please disembark.”

Harald fought the zipper with all his might. He panted and grunted. “Come, on. Come on.” The suitcase was getting hysterical. “I can’t go like this. Come on already.” He grabbed the suitcase, slung it under his arm and ran with it like a halfback looking for daylight. “I’m wide open,” shouted the suitcase. “I’m going to spill.” Harald got the suitcase in a strangle hold and tried to throttle it. Try as he might he couldn’t get going, couldn’t get any speed out of his legs. As if a linebacker had him by the ankles.

Just like that he was outside. The ocean liner was pulling out of the driveway. Harald screamed but the sound dribbled out of his mouth like applesauce. The air sagged all over him, crushing him. The kids stood there in their Sunday best yelling at the passengers who hung from the bow and waved their handkerchiefs. Nancy was wearing her beautiful Hawaiian sarong and crying like a child.

Harald dropped the suitcase and ran out into the street as the ocean liner sailed away down the street not even slowing for the stop sign on the corner. “Come back,” he shouted as he chased the liner. “Come back.” His feet fell out from under him. He lay on the ground panting, wildeyed, groaning, rolling from side to side in frustration as the ship’s horn blew faster and faster in a singsong pattern its lights flashing green and red in the distance.

The EMS workers pulled the gurney out of the back of the ambulance. A white haired woman stood in the yard weeping distractedly. A naked man was lying in the street with one pair of boxer shorts around his ankles, another pair around his neck and a final pair on his head. They lifted him onto the gurney and strapped him in tightly. They put an oxygen mask over his gaunt blank face. The woman stumbled over and held his left hand tightly with both of hers, kneading it relentlessly.

The bay formed a perfect circle with an outlet to the sea at its far end. A white rim of sand gave way to a green mountainside dotted with whitewashed cottages. A dusty winding road climbed aimlessly upward. Harald felt snug as a bug in his deckchair. He held his pina colada in his right hand and sipped it through a straw. The Chivas was for later. In his other hand was Nancy’s, tender palm against his, long fine fingers interlaced with his. Like a glove, he thought. What a great girl she is. So lucky I found her. And pretty as the day we met. Her blonde hair swam across her face in the tropical breeze. He gazed out over the rail at the hammered, polished skin of the metallic sea. He could gaze and gaze at it, as if it were a book teeming with beautiful words all speaking at once like an excited crowd whose buzzing energy made him glad to be jostled and carried along. He heard Steve and Bruce giggling. They sat crosslegged at the edge of the railing eating watermelon, spitting the seeds into the bay. Stacie in her Red Ball Jets jumped rope to a sing song melody on the squeaky clean hardwood deck as she passed before him, her scruffy knees revealed beneath her white sailor suit each time the air filled her skirt, her calves kicking up like a colt in a corral. Where the sea met the bay the sun was sinking beneath the horizon. A spinning circle of orange, it settled slowly on the horizon and sank beneath the sea. Harald closed his eyes and thought, Here at last. Never though we’d make it.