09/18/2021

Jacqueline Doyle ~ The Blue-Haired Woman on the Polish Freighter

Here’s what I’ll call the begin­ning of the sto­ry. We were sit­ting at the captain’s table. Not as impor­tant as that sounds, since this was a Polish freighter trav­el­ing from Hamburg to New York, not a lux­u­ry lin­er, with maybe six­teen pri­vate guests at most. It was a cheap and some­what adven­tur­ous way to trav­el in those days. I don’t know whether freighters still take on pas­sen­gers, but they prob­a­bly do. I was the only American at the table, return­ing to the States with my German fiancé after sev­er­al years abroad. The heavy-lid­ded Polish acro­bat sit­ting across from us was tip­sy, as she usu­al­ly was, and she was singing in a low-pitched, grav­el­ly voice: “All that meat, and no pota­toes.” It sound­ed like an American blues song, but not one I’d heard before. She pushed her straw-col­ored hair away from her face with a lan­guid hand, wig­gled her shoul­ders slight­ly but sug­ges­tive­ly. The white-haired purs­er couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

This is some­thing of a red her­ring, since the sto­ry doesn’t con­cern the Polish acro­bat at all. But since she is my most vivid mem­o­ry from the voy­age, I thought it nec­es­sary to include her.

Also on the periph­ery was a woman I bare­ly noticed at the time, though she ate in the offi­cers’ din­ing room every night. One of those blue-haired old­er women who must have been American, since women didn’t dye their hair blue like that in any oth­er coun­try, old­er women that is. She seemed to be alone, a wid­ow per­haps. She kept to her­self. I don’t remem­ber her utter­ing a word until that night.

The din­ing room was small. The captain’s table seat­ed six of us. My German fiancé and I, the Polish acro­bat, the cap­tain, the purs­er, and a sixth din­er I can’t remem­ber. There were three oth­er tables that seat­ed about four each. The blue-haired woman would have been seat­ed with strangers, but I bare­ly remem­ber her and don’t remem­ber who they were. There were some Polish pas­sen­gers, cou­ples, I think, a Spanish gen­tle­man, also trav­el­ing alone.

The white table­cloths were damp, wet­ted down before meals so that dish­es and glass­es and sil­ver­ware wouldn’t slide when the ship lurched. There were ridges on the perime­ters of the tables so things wouldn’t slide off so eas­i­ly. I was tak­ing pills for sea­sick­ness, which helped, and while the food didn’t equal the gourmet excess­es of a lux­u­ry lin­er (as a stu­dent, I’d sailed on the S.S. France on one of its last voy­ages), it was hearty and enjoy­able, and there were sev­er­al courses.

When the Polish acro­bat sang “All that meat, and no pota­toes” in her Marlene Dietrich voice, gaz­ing at the purs­er through low­ered lash­es, she wasn’t singing about the food.

Disgusting,” the blue-haired woman said, stand­ing up so abrupt­ly that her dish­es and sil­ver­ware clat­tered, her white cloth nap­kin fell to the floor. At the time I assumed she referred to the first course, a tasty soup that seemed less tasty to me when I learned that its pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ent was intestines. Looking back, I won­der if the Polish acro­bat is a more impor­tant ele­ment in the sto­ry than I con­sid­ered her to be. Perhaps it was the singing that dis­gust­ed the blue-haired woman. Perhaps she was dis­gust­ed by the male atten­tion lav­ished on the Polish acro­bat. Really it’s impos­si­ble to know. The woman stormed out of the din­ing room.

She didn’t appear at break­fast the next morn­ing. Or at lunch. None of the pas­sen­gers com­ment­ed on her absence until din­ner­time, when we learned that a stew­ard had knocked on her door and dis­cov­ered that her room was emp­ty. Or that’s how I remem­ber it.

We’d had one storm, on the sec­ond day of the trip, which caused con­sid­er­able tur­bu­lence. It wouldn’t have been safe to go on deck dur­ing the storm. But the pre­ced­ing night had been qui­et. When my fiancé and I went on deck to admire the moon and the ocean before retir­ing, we didn’t see the blue-haired woman. She’s not like­ly to have fall­en over­board inad­ver­tent­ly on such a calm night any­way. Whatever was dis­gust­ing hard­ly seems grounds to jump over­board. Or maybe it was.

The real news, how­ev­er, came the day after the woman went miss­ing, when the Spanish gen­tle­man was dis­cov­ered in his state­room with a knife in his back. Dead. He was a court­ly, inof­fen­sive mid­dle-aged man, some­what for­mal in his address. He spoke heav­i­ly accent­ed English, but I have no mem­o­ry of our con­ver­sa­tions. We prob­a­bly talked about the weath­er. The rough seas on the day of the storm.

The transat­lantic voy­age took about sev­en days. We were more than mid­way through the trip when the mur­der occurred. There didn’t seem to be any­thing to do about the vic­tim, or any rea­son to turn back. There was some pan­ic among the pas­sen­gers, of course. Afraid to return to our state­rooms dur­ing the day, we clus­tered in the small bar drink­ing Polish vod­ka ton­ics, mak­ing ner­vous jokes about who would be next, and spec­u­lat­ing at length about mem­bers of the crew, since none of us believed that anoth­er pas­sen­ger had com­mit­ted the crime. How could it be one of us? But then, why would one of the sailors have killed him? A mur­der with a motive was far less threat­en­ing than a pur­pose­less mur­der, which could hap­pen again. Had the gen­tle­man been more sin­is­ter than he appeared? A crim­i­nal? Maybe he’d been trav­el­ing with some­thing valu­able. Jewels? Black mar­ket cash for laun­der­ing? Was he smug­gling some­thing in the crates on deck?  In pri­vate my fiancé and I won­dered whether it was like Murder on the Orient Express, with mul­ti­ple mur­der­ers col­lud­ing among the pas­sen­gers. We didn’t, after all, know any of them. If there was excite­ment over the crime once we docked, I don’t remem­ber it, though sure­ly there must have been. Not many freighters arrive at their des­ti­na­tion with a dead body. Or miss­ing a passenger.

Was the blue-haired woman actu­al­ly miss­ing? Perhaps she was sea­sick and I sim­ply didn’t see her again. I could be remem­ber­ing her dis­ap­pear­ance as more dra­mat­ic than it was. I’m fair­ly sure I didn’t see her among the clus­ter of pas­sen­gers when we dis­em­barked in New York. But then she’s not the sort of woman I paid atten­tion to, back when I was young and beau­ti­ful and self-absorbed.

In time, my German fiancé dis­ap­peared from my life. A hus­band dis­ap­peared, and then anoth­er. At least that would be a way of putting it, bet­ter than say­ing they left me. I stayed in the U.S., mov­ing from city to city, leav­ing jobs and friends and acquain­tances behind in the process. Money has often been tight. Somehow I nev­er man­aged to return to Europe, or trav­el in Asia and Latin America as I’d planned. Gradually, and then more quick­ly, my youth dis­ap­peared. I col­or my hair now, not blue. I’m alone, twice divorced, not a wid­ow. There was a point, in my fifties, when men stopped notic­ing me. Then men and women. It was com­mon to have to intro­duce myself sev­er­al times to the same peo­ple. At first I was dis­tressed. In my six­ties, I’ve become used to it, and since I’m some­thing of an observ­er, I’ve come to believe that invis­i­bil­i­ty has its advan­tages. There’s no doubt that I notice more than I did when I was younger. I would look more close­ly at the blue-haired woman, for exam­ple, if I were on the ship today.

She played a star­ring role in her own dra­ma, what­ev­er it was. She may have been sui­ci­dal, mourn­ing the death of her hus­band. Or she may have played a key role in the mur­der. Was she run­ning some sort of con, secret­ly in cahoots with the Spanish gen­tle­man, that end­ed in a fatal falling out? Or was he a gigo­lo, romanc­ing her while eye­ing oth­er women, and did she stab him in a fit of jeal­ousy? I’d like a sto­ry more like the nov­els I read, one with no loose ends, but I can’t even be sure that the blue-haired woman went over­board and wasn’t hid­ing out some­where on the ship, ready to escape in New York. Ready to kill again. That’s not a very believ­able con­clu­sion. Of course if you’d told me at the time how my life was going to turn out, I wouldn’t have believed that either.

It seems unfath­omably long ago that I lived abroad, fas­ci­nat­ed by for­eign­ers. I loved being a for­eign­er myself dur­ing those years in Europe, an imme­di­ate object of inter­est, and my trav­els, talk­ing to strangers on trains and imag­in­ing their sto­ries. My life since then seems dull in com­par­i­son, not even a Spanish gen­tle­man to enliv­en my mid­dle age. Did I mur­der romance with the choic­es I’ve made, or is that just some­thing that hap­pens to every­one with the pass­ing of time? It’s not that I don’t trea­sure what I have—my small, tidy house, my books, my cat, the free­dom of solitude—but I’m no longer enrap­tured with my life the way I was then. I no longer believe that my future will hold many sur­pris­es. Of course, you nev­er know, do you?

The cap­tain assumed inves­tiga­tive author­i­ty and I think he ques­tioned the pas­sen­gers, but all I can recall is the cap­tain and the purs­er stand­ing to announce that they’d be speak­ing to each of us. They looked grave in their impec­ca­ble white uni­forms. We glanced at each oth­er ner­vous­ly, aware of the two emp­ty seats in the silent din­ing room. No one had much of an appetite that night. Would our cab­ins be searched? I won­dered whether they’d dis­cov­er the paper­back copy of Fanny Hill in German trans­la­tion that I’d been read­ing aloud to my fiancé, and whether I should throw it over­board. Twenty-some­thing and naïve, I believed it might be ille­gal, and I took pains to hide it when we went through Customs. I’m quite sure we weren’t inter­ro­gat­ed by the police after we dis­em­barked. I watch a lot of “Law and Order” reruns and I’d remem­ber that. Maybe the Manhattan police didn’t have juris­dic­tion over a mur­der or dis­ap­pear­ance that occurred at sea. Maybe no one did. I don’t recall read­ing any fol­low-up in the news­pa­per, or hear­ing any­thing fur­ther about it. I haven’t giv­en a thought to the Spaniard or the blue-haired woman again until now, and only because I heard Fats Waller singing the acrobat’s song on the radio. Jazz, appar­ent­ly, not blues. The song sounds very dif­fer­ent sung by a man. The lyrics don’t make sense, at least not to me. It’s not clear whether he’s com­plain­ing about his wife’s cook­ing, or there’s a hid­den mes­sage I can’t deci­pher. “All that meat, and no pota­toes.” The acrobat’s sul­try, one-line ver­sion was better.

I’ll be the first to admit, my mem­o­ries are some­times inac­cu­rate, my per­cep­tions sub­jec­tive. I tend to rec­ol­lect the past in frag­ments, with none of the nar­ra­tive sat­is­fac­tions to be derived from a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end. Does mem­o­ry man­u­fac­ture its own metaphors for what’s been killed off, for what you’ve become? The blue-haired woman and the Spaniard are the most dubi­ous parts of this mem­o­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Spaniard, who may be a fic­tion­al addi­tion to a real voy­age I once took with a German fiancé on a Polish freighter. Perhaps I plucked him from a mur­der mys­tery I read in the decades since the trip. The blue haired woman may have been an actu­al pas­sen­ger: she is the sort of woman who would slip in and out of anyone’s con­scious recall. The Polish acro­bat was def­i­nite­ly real. I can still see her singing at the captain’s table with a seduc­tive shim­my, and a mean­ing­ful pause after “meat.” I’ve often won­dered what became of her. She was old­er than me, but not old. There was a sort of seedy glam­or about her that hint­ed at mys­te­ri­ous adven­tures. I imag­ine her tee­ter­ing on a tightrope at some provin­cial cir­cus in the American heart­land, hung over, squint­ing in the bright lights. Did she fall? Was there a safe­ty net? Really if any­one was enmeshed in some hid­den intrigue and capa­ble of mur­der, it was her.

~

Jacqueline Doyle is the author of the award-win­ning flash chap­book The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press) and has pub­lished fic­tion and non­fic­tion in Post Road, The Gettysburg Review, Midway Journal, Wigleaf, Juked, and else­where. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and can be found online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com and on twit­ter @doylejacq.