“I can’t believe you agreed to do this,” Ensign Bradley Redford said when he picked her up at 5:00 a.m. an ungodly hour. How DID she agree to get up at 4:00 am to float on a barge in the Pacific Ocean with a stranger? Normally, Janie never would have taken only one hour to prepare for a date, but getting up before 4:00 am was not an option. She had answered the door, sparkling, as if she had taken three hours to get ready. Sharing a bedroom with a brother and sister as a youth taught Janie speed. She wore a red halter top with black corduroys and a bomber jacket she picked up in New York last year. “Wow,” he said when she opened the door. “You look dazzling.” Her smile grew three centimeters on each side. He was wearing a Navy sweatshirt (the football team, not the color), over a navy button-down (the color, not the football team). His pants were pressed. He led her down to his Jeep. On the seat, she found a picnic basket. “God, I’m sorry,” he said as he grabbed the basket to put in the trunk. “I didn’t expect a picnic. I thought we were going to a seafood place on the island.” Their destination, Catalina Island, was a sleepy town filled with ice cream parlors, day spas, shops and seafood restaurants. Brad had promised her an adventure, complete with jet skiing and the best lobster bisque in Southern California. “Actually I made brunch for the boat. We won’t get to the Island till after one.” He opened the basket and pointed out the food. “Pasta salad, homemade bread, olive tapenade and hummus.” “You make hummus?” “My nanny was Armenian. She taught me to make many Middle Eastern dishes.” “Can you make B’Stilla?” she asked. She had tasted those spicy pastry Hors d'voures at a dinner party a few weeks ago and loved them. “I was a whiz at making the sauce. But I just couldn’t get those suckers to rise. Have no patience for it.” Janie just realized that one hour may have been enough to beautify herself, but not to eat. All this talk was making her stomach grumble.
They drove down to San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles. All her years in LA and she had never been to San Pedro. Now she could see why. Those old episodes of Love Boat always showed the port in the opening credits, but they never captured the area’s grittiness or dankness. She guessed that if you
were on your way to Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific Princess, you’d be too elated to mind the smell of seaweed and stagnant water. They pulled up to the boat they’d be taking. Barge was more like it, she thought. It was a forty foot slab sitting on the water. In the middle was the control room with a spiral staircase that led to the bottom level (the lido deck, she figured). The seats were plastic cushions; some had tape holding them together. The ground was corroded and sticky. Janie flashed an exaggerated smile, so Brad wouldn’t consider HER to be a Pacific Princess. She looked to the side. Several water taxis sat empty. They may not have been the QE2 but they appeared more shipshape than this vessel. He stepped onto the boat, and then helped her aboard. The boat creaked as she stepped on the ledge. “This boat is safe, right?” she said jovially, hoping it masked her genuine fear that James Cameron would someday be using their voyage as a sequel to Titanic. “It’s perfectly safe,” he said with a grin. “Usually I take the water taxis, but this boat goes past the island into whale watching territory.” “Whale watching?” Her face brightened. She’d never seen a whale up close. Other than Shamu. As he pulled the picnic basket onto the boat, he pointed to the left. The sun had begun to creep up over the clearing. She had to admit, from that angle, with the bright orange wave crashing over the horizon, even San Pedro appeared gorgeous. They were the first on the boat. Janie couldn’t imagine anything better than creamy lobster bisque, cold ocean water splashing in her face and an afternoon with a man, not a keyboard. Janie was enjoying her time with Brad. He brushed off the seat before allowing her to sit. Chivalry, dead? Hah! She couldn’t stop smiling. This man was so open, so charming. The other passengers trickled in a few moments later. First a couple from Gardena came aboard. He, a crate operator, didn’t seem to speak in complete sentences. His wife appeared to be the dummy to his ventriloquist. She talked enough for both of them. Then a family of six, complete with bratty kids, announced themselves by bickering over something as inconceivable as what chewing gum Dad bought for the trip. As the passengers crowded around the bow, the boat began to sway. Janie reached into her backpack and took out a Dramamine patch. She offered one to Brad, who declined. “I grew up on boats,” he said. “I don’t get sick.” Finally a woman in a $2500 outfit, sunglasses and two assistants appeared. Murmuring filled the air. Janie squinted to get a better look at the lady. “Isn’t that Nina Stephan?” Brad whispered to her.
Janie had seen The Murder Clause on cable just last week. Even in the incognito garb of a scarf and glasses, it was obvious that Stephan, the action-adventure movie star who just scored $15 million for her next project, had wandered onto the boat. Why would a movie star of her caliber go to Catalina Island on the Ship of Fools? Janie wondered. She could afford to rent the Pacific Princess. The lady from Gardena traipsed over to Stephan. “Can I have your autograph? I loved you in Brides of Blood. You know the time where you…” Stephan’s assistant blocked her like a defensive linebacker looking for the pigskin. “Ms. Stephan does not do autographs.” The lady walked back to her husband, mortified. Now that everyone had arrived, Captain Ron, who had been leading this vessel since 1964, hobbled to the center and addressed the passengers. About 5’2 with bushy red hair and ungroomed eyebrows that seemed to fuse with his forehead hair, the Captain was the antithesis of who central casting would have sent had this been a movie. When he spoke, it sounded like a running motor in desperate need of a tuneup. He jumped on a crate so he could easily be seen by all the passengers. His smile brightened his weathered face. Combined with the twinkle in the eye that came from adoring being with people, Captain Ron turned out to be a lovely individual. Janie was fond of him immediately. He reminded her of Nikolai. A warm soul shining from within a battered shell. “Now I want y’all to have a good time here. We’re gonna see some wild fish, we’re gonna give you a chance to do some fishing in an area that has humongous trout. There’s a restaurant on the island that will gut and cook any fish you catch on this boat. It’s off the east side of the pavilion. When you see anything worth looking at, just shout out for the rest of your buddies to have a look-see.” Captain Ron’s crew, aka his crusty wife Loraine, carried out seven fishing poles and then a crate with sandwiches and drinks, including homemade lemonade. Loraine NEVER smiled. The boat jerked as it pushed away from the dock. Janie noticed that the movie star jutted forward spilling her coffee all over her four-figure dress. Janie guessed that all the assistants in the world couldn’t protect you from physics. That didn’t stop Nina Stephan from blaming Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum for her ruined dress. Janie assumed that if there weren’t witnesses, The Divine Miss Nina would have bitch-slapped the two assistants, she was so livid. Janie stopped focusing on the primadonna because she had this delicious guy with her. She could always catch Ms. Stephan on Cinemax later if she so desired. “Why don’t we break out the hummus,” Janie said to Brad.
He grabbed the basket and pulled it to his lap. He flipped open the container and pulled out the salads which were all individually wrapped in Tupperware. Politely, he handed her a fork and her pasta salad. “MMM,” she said with genuine appreciation. Brad was one outstanding cook. The dressing was light but tangy; the pasta, “al dente.” Instinctively, he left out those gross bell peppers. Just pasta, ripe tomatoes and vinaigrette. Gallantly, he ripped off a bite-size piece of baked bread and fed it to her. Four grain bread. She was in love. She only wished for her favorite dip, blue cheese and walnut. The marriage of that bread and her dip would have been golden. “I’ll trade you celery sticks for what you’re having.” Janie looked up to see the movie star flirting with her date. “My nutritionist would never allow me to eat hummus or carbs. I’ll give you my MTV Movie award for just one taste.” “Not necessary.” Brad politely offered Nina a small container of hummus and tore some bread for her. He then handed Janie her container of hummus to clarify that he had relinquished his own food, not his date’s. “This boat is a gas,” Nina Stephan continued. Janie searched the boat. Brad was the only attractive man onboard. No wonder why Nina b-lined to him. Well he’s not eligible, lady, so go flaunt your Golden Globes somewhere else, Janie thought “Look,” someone shouted. “Loon …three o’clock.” The engine shut down and everyone ran to the starboard to see a duck floating by in the water. The boat noticeably tilted with the mob. Janie ran too. It was a majestic looking bird, she had to admit. Spangled with a white dotted collar that resembled a diamond choker, the bird passed by, oblivious to the gawkers. The engine started up again and the boat jutted forward. Everyone returned to their seats. Janie and Brad walked towards the front of the boat. The water began to stir; Janie felt the bumpy waves below. He grabbed her hand and led her to the boat’s bow. They almost collided into a rugrat who kept crying that she wanted to go to Disneyland. Janie remembered that she had some candy from yesterday in her purse. She rummaged inside her purse, grabbed the Tootsie Roll and handed it to the little girl. The girl scowled and chucked the little hard rod at Janie. “I HATE TOOTSIE ROLLS!” What a waste of good candy, Janie thought as the little monster stomped back to her mother. Brad led her away to observe the tranquil vista. She arched her chest forward so her peripheral view would contain nothing but water. If she blocked out the sounds, she could imagine herself floating in the
middle of nowhere, among the fish and kelp and gulls. Brad entwined his hand between hers again. She squeezed it gently. “Look. Sunfish. 6 o’clock.” Someone shouted. The engine stopped again. The boat lurched forward as everyone ran to the back to sample the seven-inch sunfish surfing the ocean blue. The boat swayed like a hammock. Janie skipped the observation and instead treasured the moment of solitude. A school of fish passed before them. She almost shouted “swarm of red fish 12 o’clock” but since the ignition had just been turned, she didn’t want to feel the boat shift a second time. Her stomach couldn’t handle it. So the two shared the moment alone. “So much for whale watching,” Janie heard from behind. Nina had joined them again. “The only reason I’m on this rickety boat is for research.” “You’re playing Captain Ron in your next movie?” Janie asked without a trace of sarcasm. Nina rolled her eyes. “NO. I’m playing a cartographer. My character would take boats just like this one to study the effects of corrosion on the sea. Who’s going to see a movie about a scientist who observes starfish? I’m going to kill my producer.” Janie wasn’t too sure who’d see a movie about a mapmaker. Examining Nina, Janie was pretty sure the actress had erroneously stated the character’s profession. If Nina Stephan knew what a cartographer was or was even capable of reading a map, Janie would EAT a map. The second Janie heard “Jellyfish, 5 o’clock” she prepared herself for another pit stop by grabbing the railing. As expected, the engine shut off and everyone rushed to see the jellyfish. In the last hour, the waves had escalated. Janie kept her bearing and slipped into a chair. Brad offered her lemonade. “Thank you, no,” she said as she patted her stomach. “The acid will kill me.” “I’ll take some,” Nina said. Brad handed it to her. Janie grabbed a water bottle from the picnic basket and twisted off the cap. She stared into the oblivion on the horizon then gulped some water. The line separating the earth from the sky kept bobbing up and down. She closed her eyes a second. They bubbled as fluid caressed the soreness of the cornea. Between the wind and an errant tootsie roll, her eyes had seen better days. She could use some Visine but had forgotten to bring any along. “Eel, 11 o’clock.” Shit, she said to herself, not again. She rubbed her eyes. Around 10:15, the trouble really began. Janie had been downstairs waiting for the restroom when she heard the unmistakable sound of vomiting. She cringed. The smell began to permeate out to the small sunken hallway. Janie decided now would be a great time for a breath of air. Janie grabbed onto railing and walked up the steps to the outside. She rammed into a little boy who kept picking his nose even when everyone stared.
“Mommy, my tummy hurts now,” he said, grabbing on his mother’s hand, which was two steps above. They darted past Janie. The little boy banged on the bathroom door. “Tommy, that’s rude,” his mother said. “Someone’s in there.” He replied by puking all over her dress. Janie didn’t think Tommy’s mother would be calling him rude again. Janie desperately needed air. She made it to the top. A fog of death and despair had encased the boat as people were barfing off the sides. Janie found her Navy officer crouched in a fetal position, his head over the edge, hacking bile. At his side, Nina Stephan wiped tears from her eyes. She blew her nose on her dress before throwing up again. Janie searched for Nina’s assistants. Why were they not helping their master? Janie saw them leaning over the bow and knew why. Even Captain Ron’s farbisine wife had lost last night’s dinner. Who exactly was steering the boat? Janie stepped over near-corpses, assessing the situation. Why was everyone sick but her? She couldn’t have the strongest disposition on the boat. She walked towards the bow when she kicked over one of the lemonade pitchers. It spilt. The lemonade! She could remember seeing many of the passengers pouring from the pitchers. She knew Brad drank at least one glass. So did Nina. She had grabbed Janie’s. Janie inspected the ruins of this civilization. She heard groans and coughs in stereo from the left, from the right, in front and behind her. She felt like the last woman on earth. Like Scarlett O’Hara tending to the confederate soldiers, she rolled up her sleeves and played nursemaid. She maneuvered towards Brad. She stroked his wavy blond hair. “What can I do for you?” she asked. He looked up. He was greener than Kermit. She gave a sympathetic glance. She went to her purse for some Kleenex, grabbed some ice from the chest and squatted beside him. “This will soothe you.” She rubbed the melting ice on his forehead. He looked up at her with thanks. This barge would be floating for ages if she didn’t attend to the Captain. She found him to be the mystery man she’d heard hacking in the bathroom. “Captain Ron. Are you going to be alright?” He looked up into her eyes and collapsed at her feet. We’re going to die on this ghost ship, she thought half-joking. She bent over him. “What can I do?” “Ghost Car.” She turned white. She almost shivered as she repeated, “Ghost Car?” “Ghost Guard.” Now she felt stupid. “Coast Guard? You want me to call the Coast Guard in?” “Yes.” She ran up the steps to the deck and onto the bridge.
She found the bridge-to-bridge radio and pushed the call button. She felt like Karen Black attempting to land a plane in Airport ‘75. Janie wet her lips and spoke into the microphone, “Attention Coast Guard, Attention Coast Guard. This is Janie Miller. I’m a passenger on the Catalina Pass. Everyone’s been stricken with food poisoning, including the Captain.” “Catalina Pass, this is Ensign Harding, United States Coast Guard Catalina station. Report your current Lat and Long.” “What do I look like, Rand McNally?” Ensign Harding explained how Janie could read the mappings. She led the guards towards their rescue. Janie sat with Brad as they all awaited salvation from the Coast Guard. Help arrived 40 minutes later and took command of the boat. Officer Horace Terrington boarded and steered them to the island. An ambulance met them at the docks and assisted the passengers and Captain Ron to the island hospital. A Coast Guard officer led her in a car behind. She explained about the tainted lemonade, which had been removed as evidence. Captain Ron’s insurance would be hit hard, she imagined. The officer dropped her off at the hospital where she got a quick examination. She didn’t understand why someone had to probe her. She had no symptoms and did not drink the tainted lemonade, but she humored them. Next to the hospital, a tiny flower shop displayed a lovely array of bouquets. When her examination ended, she went next door for a bunch of posies. She found some gorgeous yellows that made a great presentation. She paid the vendor and returned to find Brad’s room. She asked the attending at the nurses’ station for guidance. They led her down the hallway to room 134. She knocked on the door, heard nothing, so she entered. Brad was well enough to stand. He was well enough to stop vomiting. He was well enough to shove his tongue down Nina Stephan’s throat. Janie rolled her eyes and said, “Nina, you still have a chunk of barf on your chin,” before chucking his posies into the bin and walking away from her Catalina experience.