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.