They found his body at 5:00 am at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the sports deck to the pool. Claire Warner hears the announcement at 8:00 in her stateroom as she is curling her hair.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain. As some of you may already know, the body of our distinguished guest lecturer, Francesco Carlucci, was found this morning by our First Officer Paul Cornelius. We are guessing that Professor Carlucci missed a step, fell down the flight and hit his head. When we reach port in 30 minutes, an official Medical Examiner will come onboard to determine the actual cause of death. We promise to keep you informed.”
Her husband was doing laps around the sports deck now. With the iPod blasting in his ear, he probably didn’t hear the announcement. Finishing her hair and applying lipstick, Claire sits in the armchair beside their bed. She glances at the book lying open on the table – Eric Fischl’s autobiography Bad Boy, but she opts to solve the latest Brendan Emmett Quigley crossword on her iPad.
She enters a few of the answers, then her mind drifts to the Professor’s lecture last night. He was so on, she thinks. How deftly he traced the history of Vermeer forgeries. She had heard him give this lecture half a dozen times, but never quite so well. She feels her cheeks moistening and wipes them with the sleeve of her blouse.
The door opens, Steve back from his power walk on the deck.
“Hey, good morning,” he says. “Wow, I heard the announcement. What a loss, what a shame.”
She just shakes her head.
“You think, Claire, that maybe he had too much to drink last night? Or maybe he was on something else – pain killers?”
She shrugs. He frowns.
“I’ll bet this will screw up the shore excursions. The local authorities aren’t going to let us off the ship until they issue a death certificate.”
“That’s a bit cold, isn’t it?” she asks.
“You’re right,” he whispers, his head down.
She loves that about Steve – his humility, ability to admit he’s wrong without her forcing him to do so. She smiles.
“Well, our excursion to Stavanger doesn’t start until 1:30 so maybe they’ll release us by then.”
“We’ll see. I’m going to hop in the shower and then we can go for breakfast.”
She gets up from the chair and kisses him. As he heads toward the bathroom, she asks if he minded eating outside on the restaurant deck – she wants to be served instead of doing the buffet breakfast on Deck 7.
“Sounds like a good idea,” he says. “It’s beautiful out there.”
While Steve is in the shower, the Captain comes on the P.A. system again and states what they supposed – no one would be allowed to leave the ship until further notice.
She looks at herself in the mirror. How calm she is. What if they were made to stay aboard all day, to miss out on what promised to be an exciting excursion? They’re still young, she and Steve – she has just turned 55 and he was just two years older. Plenty of time to return to Norway. And there is a lot to do on the ship today. She wanted to get deeper into her book and to send off some long overdue emails. Steve wanted to attend the morning lecture by the retired CIA operative on secrets of the Cold War.
At breakfast, he starts talking about the Professor.
“I wonder how old he was.”
She shrugs. “In his mid-seventies, I suppose.” She knows he was years younger.
“Yeah. I presume he was not married. If he had children, they’ll be shocked. I mean what’s a safer place to be than a cruise ship?”
She thinks of all the honeymoon killers – brides and grooms both – who had erased their mistakes aboard cruise ships. And of Robert Wagner who for forty years had undoubtedly gotten away with the murder of Natalie Wood.
“Well, surely someone will miss him,” she comments. “His colleagues at Yale, friends and enemies in the art world, editor at ArtNews.”
Has she said too much? Would he wonder how she knew Carlucci had been writing for ArtNews since it wasn’t in the bio flashed on the screen at the beginning of his lecture?
After breakfast, they head back to their stateroom and take their books out to the balcony. He is more intent on his book on white collar crime than she is on Bad Boy. Nevertheless, she manages to get through some fifty pages before there is a new announcement from the Captain. The Norwegian authorities have indeed come to the conclusion that Carlucci’s death was an accident caused by his fall from the deck above. There was no evidence of foul play. Guests could leave the ship and all afternoon excursions would take place. Claire and Steve smile at each other, grab cameras and leave their cabin.
They had chosen a cruise along the Lysefjord to see the famous Preikestolen, Pulpit Rock. On board to their destination, the guide tells them about the acres of salmon farms and how the Norwegians were dealing with their petroleum riches. Then the rock. They could barely make out the hikers on top, some 2,000 feet above them. Snap, snap, snap, snap – as if the rock were moving. On the way back, Steve photographs every part of the landscape – mountains, trees, water, clouds. Claire is much more selective. She doesn’t want to capture anything that can’t be rendered into high art.
When the cruise is over, they walk around the booths dotting the harbor area and he buys a tee shirt depicting Pulpit Rock. The young woman at the booth doesn’t count out his change correctly and Steve hands $10 back to her. He wants to go back on the ship and nap before dinner.
“You go,” she urges. “I want to walk around the town a bit more. It’s really charming.”
He doesn’t argue, gives her a kiss, and heads for the security line. He turns around once and Claire waves, then she starts up the hills of the town. The old quarter is supposed to have Europe’s highest concentration of buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries.
She captures images of the narrow streets, the flowers, the people sitting at the cafes. It is charming, but she walks through most of the old town in less than a half hour. She needs more time. She heads back down to the harbor and then off to the newer section. There is a park with an enormous lake. She aims her camera at various points along the shore.
When she looks up, she sees the green island in the middle of the lake. Isola Bella in the middle of Lake Maggiore – she was there with him, Francesco, 35 years ago. He rowed her there from the dock near the Hotel Bristol in Stresa. They had a magnificent lunch on the island, then came back to the hotel and made love.
And she had been with him on Mallorca, Mykonos, and New Hebrides, in Venice, Paris and Delft – on the move all within those magic two years. And now he was still.
Back on the ship, she decides to stop at the bar on the main deck. Over a Grieg piano sonata, she can hear three women her age talking about their daughters’ fertility. One is wiping tears away – her daughter has been trying for eight years and it won’t happen. Claire empathizes. She wasn’t able to become pregnant again. It was her problem, not Steve’s. That’s not what she regrets, that’s not what made her so angry. She got over the abortion as quickly mentally as she did physically.
As free a spirit as she was with Francesco, she could never tell Steve about the affair, about the fetus, even after 25 years of marriage. She had come back to the U.S. and finished her graduate degree at Yale. She met Steve at a gallery opening. He was with a foundation client who had endowed the featured painter and her work.
She hadn’t planned to get married and certainly not to marry money, but stroke of luck, her love for him had grown over the years and his earnings fueled her continuing education and her ability to buy art she loved.
The three women change topics as they order more drinks. The stunner of the three reveals to the others that Professor Carlucci approached her after his lecture two nights ago. He asked how she liked his presentation and invited her to have a drink with him. Of course, she refused him nicely, saying that she left her wedding ring in the safe (true) and her husband was waiting for her (a lie).
Her friend chuckles “I wish he would ask me. I’d have a drink with him, or two or four in his cabin. I bet he’d teach me a thing or two about horizontal art.”
They laugh. Claire grits her teeth, begins to cough, and orders another Campari and soda. She sits for 10 minutes unconsciously squeezing her glass tighter and tighter. When her hand cramps, she gets up and makes her way to the cabin.
Steve is groggy when she opens the door. She apologizes for waking him and steps back out. She heads for the sports deck. The sun is still bright at six o’clock and there is a string quartet playing. She starts to sweat when she recognizes Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Is it really that, she wonders? Now it sounds atonal – Schoenberg maybe – like the whole world is going to crash.
She has to pull herself together. What was it her mother always asked when Claire first went off to college: “Is everything under control?” She does have control. She knows things no one else knows.
Now the quartet is playing Boccherini. She smiles, remembering that the first time she heard his music was when she was 15. Her father had rented a villa in the hills of Acapulco and she was in the swimming pool overlooking the city. Her mother put the cassette in the portable player they had brought from Westchester. The blue water, the surroundings, the peace. And seven years later, the abortion.
No matter. Boccherini does the trick again. She is calm, cool Claire. There is nothing she couldn’t handle.
Steve is awake, dressed and watching CNN when she returns. She smiles and asks if he had a good nap. He smiles back and points to the TV.
“You just missed it,” he says. “They had a 30-second segment on Carlucci, showed the body being removed from our ship.”
She frowns and shakes her head. “Poor man. You know maybe he was having vision problems he hid from everybody. That could have easily caused him to miss a step.”
They go off to dinner. He wants a table for just the two of them. Claire shows him the photos she had taken of the old town and the lake and she talks about the cellist in the quartet. She doesn’t say she had stopped at the bar on the main deck as well.
On their way to the performance in the auditorium a woman about her age walks up to them. She looks vaguely familiar, but Claire can’t place her – not even after the woman calls her by name.
“Claire, I cannot believe it’s you!”
Claire feels lost, ashamed, and her face obviously betrays it.
“Lynn Curtis. We were in graduate school together at NYU.”
Claire knows the name, but the woman’s face is not registering.
“Of course, Lynn. I am so sorry I didn’t recognize you.”
Lynn dismisses the apology with a hand wave. “It’s totally okay. It’s been more than 30 years.”
They chat for ten minutes after Claire introduces Steve. Lynn tells them that her husband and another couple are saving seats for her in the auditorium. Her parting words are a mini-eulogy for Carlucci.
Claire tells Steve to find seats and she goes to the bathroom. She looks in the mirror, not really knowing what or who she is looking at. With shaking hands, she splashes cold water on her face, holds her wrists under the faucet. I didn’t recognize her, how could I have done that to her, she thinks. I’m a visual person. The cycle of turning from somebody to nobody.
She finds Steve in the auditorium and tells him she cannot stay. Something she ate at dinner is distressing her. He should enjoy the show.
Back in their cabin, shame overcomes her – not the shame of the scene with Lynn a half hour ago, not even the shame of what transpired an hour after midnight.
She replays the early morning scene in her mind. Steve had gone back to the cabin. He had promised to send a client some critical recommendations. She was in the lounge on the top deck when she spotted Francesco at the far end of the bar. She followed him out onto the deck and tapped him on the shoulder.
“You bastard,” she screamed. “Five years after we have an affair that lasted two years, after I agree to have an abortion, I come up to you after a lecture in New York and you have no idea who I am.”
He raised a hand as if he were stalling for time to invent an explanation.
“You forget me twenty-five years after a one-night stand and I would have understood, even ten years. Not five years, not after what we felt, where we went. I have not been able to live with that.”
He turned his back on her – again – and she shoved him as hard as she could. He fell so fast. She stared down to the bottom of the flight of stairs and he was not moving. She looked around and no one was there.
Now twenty hours later, she is so very tired. She undresses, goes to bed, and falls into a deep sleep. She peers at the clock at midnight. Steve is not in the cabin. He enters a half-hour later.
“Where were you?” she asks gently, knowing he would never do anything untoward.
“After the show, I ran into First Mate Cornelius. We went for drinks upstairs. He was telling me that he didn’t agree with the police about what happened with Professor Carlucci. He thinks Carlucci was pushed down those stairs but doesn’t know why or who.”
Fully in control, Claire looks at him.
“It was me, Steve. I pushed him.”
Lee Marc Stein lives in East Setauket, NY. His poetry has appeared in Blast Furnace, Message in a Bottle, Miller’s Pond, Subliminal Interiors, and The Write Room. His book Whispers in the Galleries features ekphrastic poems. His stories have been published in Bartleby Snopes, nicollsroad, and Write Place at the Write Time. He led workshops at Stony Brook University’s Lifelong Learning program on modern masters of the novel. This is his first feature on The Fictional Café.