This story by an anonymous writer was the 2007 Jakob Laurie Prize winner. Awarded by the Twin Cities Short Story Lovers Association, the Jakob Laurie Prize is bestowed on exemplary works of meandering fiction taking place on or near a ship with a light displacement of 15,000 metric tons or less. The prize is named after Jakob Laurie, a gifted writer and playwright who disappeared in 2005 while on a cruise aboard the Sea Goddess. A rubber dinghy was also reported missing. Despite an extensive search of the waters near Paramour’s Cove, his body was never found. Laurie is best known for his play, "Think not of the Thorns on a Rose," Pianfetti Prize Winner in 1999. In Laurie's cabin, several short story manuscripts were found locked in an Ironwood box. These included, “I’ll Walk the Plank for you Baby,” “What to do if you Find a Sea Serpent in your Berth,” and “Five Tips for Telling if You are Deeply in Love with a Starfish.” These and three others were published in 2006 by Pirate’s Press under the title, “Clowning and Drowning – Jakob Laurie’s Last Gasp.”
Two dancers move slowly on the moonlit deck of a large cruise ship that has a light displacement of 13,542 metric tons. She wears a long white nightgown. His shirt is unbuttoned and flutters loosely in the warm sea breeze. All is quiet save the subdued sound of the water breaking rhythmically on the bow of the ship. But somehow the dancers can hear music. He holds her in his embrace as he leads her back and forth across the deck, their stockinged feet slipping slightly on the polished planking. He pulls her close. The dark-haired woman is smiling. It is a beautiful smile.
No sooner has he pulled her close than they trip over each other's feet and fall to the deck with a rolling thud. She laughs and laughs, covering her mouth. He just smiles and watches her from where he lies, a few feet from her. She has a hearty laugh, healthy and strong. He has never heard it before. Certainly never like this.
"I told you I couldn't dance."
On hearing this, she laughs again.
He lies on his back and watches the stars gently swaying. She props herself on one elbow and looks at him. He looks peaceful but she knows he is thinking.
He turns to look at her. She is so lovely.
The wide collar of her nightgown has fallen off her shoulder. She sees that he notices. She tries to pull it up but it will not stay. She looks at him. He looks back at her tenderly.
"You know we can never do this," she says.
"Never is a long time,” he says, smiling at her. “Anyway, what is it you want to do?”
“I didn’t say I wanted to do anything.”
He props himself up on his elbow so he can look at her more easily. “Well what are you talking about?”
“You know.” She pulls at her collar again, but still it will not stay.
For a moment, they are silent. He can tell she is thinking. She wets her lips with her tongue. "I wish that ... "
But he cuts her off, not wanting her to say something she might regret. “Is this what you want, to do this?”
She takes a deep breath. She looks down at the polished deck. She traces the grooves between the slats with her finger. “No.” She does not look at him.
“How come I don’t believe you?”
She looks up at him and smiles. “Because you’re a narcissist!” She laughs. She traces the grooves. “Let me ask you something. If you could have anything you wanted, without worrying about hurting anyone, what would you want?”
“To be happy.”
She looks up from her tracing. “You’re not happy now?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So why would you want to be unfaithful.”
“I did't say that either. You keep putting words in my mouth."
She presses her lips together tightly. She is going to let him speak.
"Why do they call it that? Unfaithful. Maybe they should call it being faithful – faithful to human nature.”
“I see. You know, this is why I got away from men in the first place.”
She doesn't answer. She is not sure she wants to get into all that right now. "You know, some people call it cheating."
"Is that what you call it?" He leans toward her and with the sly grin on his face he seems genuinely interested in her answer.
"Don't put words in my mouth."
"Well some people call it charity."
"Charity!" She almost spits the word out, but there is a little laugh at the end of the word.
"Sure, like sharing. Didn't you learn to share when you were little?"
"Oh yes, of course. But I don't remember this part. I do remember learning a few things about loyalty and fidelity. Beware of the philanderer. That's what I remember." She's smiling at him, eager to hear what he will say to this.
"Maybe it's not philandering. Maybe it's philanthropy?"
She looks at him closely, trying to tell if he is serious. He's still smiling, but she's not sure what that means, if it means anything. "Are you a philanthropist?" she asks cooly, as if she has no opinion on whether or not this would be a good thing.
"No." He thinks she looks disappointed. "Yes," he says hastily. She raises an eyebrow. "I mean not yet."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" she asks.
"Well, I've been looking for the right -- client." He looks at her, a hint of a smile on his lips.
"Actually, I know where she is. I know who she is. I just don't know if she wants my -- my services."
"Son, you have to create the need. Have you heard of advertising?"
"Good, because that's how it works. Advertising is all about creating the need. You have to sell yourself, son."
"Should I call you mom?"
"OK. I have been trying some advertising actually."
"Where have you been advertising?"
"On the Internet mostly."
"I'm not really sure. Mixed results maybe. Maybe my message hasn't been quite right.
"Well keep working at it. I have a feeling you're going to win her over yet."
"I hope so."
There is a lull in the conversation. He can tell she's thinking.
Finally, she says, "Does the word 'committed' mean anything to you?"
He gives her a worried sidelong glance. "Committed? You're not going to have me committed are you?"
She smiles. "Well it has crossed my mind. But that's not really what I meant. Why did you get married?
He has been resting on his elbow, but his arm is feeling sore now. He lays flat on his back again, watching the stars. "I don't know. My girlfriend wanted to. I got tired of calling her my girlfriend. At some point 'girlfriend' doesn't really cut it anymore. Anyway, she felt insecure, and I thought that might help. It's not like I was going anywhere anyway. But I still have my doubts about the whole institution. It's so -- formal. I was fine just being good friends. Why do we have to get the church or the state involved?" He turns to look at her. "Why did you get married?"
She looks down. There is something sad in her eyes. "That was a long time ago."
"Still, I want to know -- unless you don't want to talk about it."
"It's complicated. Let's just say maybe I'm too nice."
"I can see that." He is looking into her eyes. There is no mistaking the sadness. "You were married for a long time."
"Is that a question?"
"Too long. I don't want to make that kind of mistake again."
"That makes sense." He turns his gaze back to the stars. "There are different kinds of relationships," he says at last. "Some relationships are kind of cerebral."
She smiles. She knows what he said, but it almost sounded like something else. "You want to have a cereal relationship?"
He laughs at this. "Yes, a cereal relationship, like the Rice Crispy guys, Snap, Crackle, Pop!"
"Are those guys gay?" he asks.
"How should I know?"
"I thought maybe you had some inside information."
"I can never tell if people are gay," he says.
"Are you interested in the Rice Crispy guys?" she asks, trying to look serious.
"There is only one man I would sleep with."
She raises an eyebrow, waiting expectantly.
"My cat." He smiles. "Actually, we've been sleeping together for years."
"Yes, and my wife is totally cool with it. She knows everything."
She smiles and nods. "That's great. I'm happy for you."
"Do you like dogs?" she asks.
"Well I never slept with a dog. That might be OK."
She nods slightly.
"Like a lot of things, dogs are probably better in theory than in practice."
"Like," she pauses, rolling her eyes and curling her lips in mock thought, "an imaginary friend?"
"Exactly. You don't have to clean up after an imaginary dog -- or an imaginary husband."
"Yes, I see what you mean." She smiles knowingly. "But it does have its downside. Like say I were to imagine I had a husband who cleaned up after me. Well, if he is only imaginary, he is not going to do a very good job of picking up my underwear."
"No, I'm afraid you're right about that."
"Or like in bed, if I were to want my imaginary husband to ...
"Yes, I know," he cuts her off. "I'm well aware of all that."
"Yes, I suppose you would be." There is a hint of a smile on her face.
"I once read about a woman who had an imaginary dog."
"Oh yeah," she crosses her legs, trying to get comfortable.
"She even bought a dog house for him. A really big dog house."
"No, she put it in the back yard. She thought it would deter burglars and other miscreants."
"Well that's a good idea. I never liked miscreants. Did it work?"
"It seemed to, but after a few years, she sort of forgot about it. It got old and ratty looking. She finally decided to get rid of it. But when she went out there to start taking it apart, she found a homeless man sleeping in it."
"Yes. So she called the police. The police came out and I guess he was still sleeping. But they woke him up and told him he was trespassing. Anyway, he wanted to fight the ticket because it seemed unfair. So it ended up in court."
She is listening very intently. He is a good storyteller.
"And the judge said, 'What do you have to say for yourself?' And he said, 'Well, I'm a writer. I'm working on a novel. I don't have any money. And I don't have any place to live.' He was kind of scruffy looking and the judge was skeptical that he was a writer. So he showed the judge his novel."
"And what did the judge say?" She is dying to know how the story ends.
"He said it had too much dialogue. And the main character was too self-centered." He smiles and his dimples show again. "Anyway, so the judge was looking over his novel, and it was a mess. It needed a lot of work. But meanwhile, you know, the woman was there, and she hadn't said anything against him. She just felt sorry for him. He was kind of cute. Even though he was in the dog house, so to speak, she liked him."
She smiles. "So what happened?"
"The judge gave him a little fine. She actually paid it for him. But the funniest part was that she took him in, cleaned him up, and eventually she married him."
"You're making it up!"
"I don't lie about imaginary dogs, or very big dog houses, or homeless men who sleep in very big dog houses, or women with hearts of gold."
"Well when we get back to land, I'm going to get a very big dog house."
"For your imaginary dog, or your imaginary husband?"
"I was thinking more about the miscreants."
"Ah yes, the imaginary miscreants."
"You don't believe in miscreants?"
"Oh sure, but they're much less common than people think. There are probably more husbands than miscreants in the world."
"That's not very reassuring," she says.
"No, I suppose not."
"A lot of husbands are miscreants."
"That's true. Good point. There are some good husbands too."
She looks at him, studying his expression. It's a calm expression, rather sweet. "Would you be a good husband."
"I am a good husband." He looks down at the polished deck, and breath escapes from him in a quiet sigh. Why does everything have to be so complicated, he wonders. "Maybe we could just be friends," he says. He never thought he would be the one to make such a suggestion, but he is.
"Is that what you want?" She tries to sound detached, as if the answer does not matter to her.
He does not answer. He sits up, clutching his knees -- as if curling up into a ball will help to focus his mind. Finally, he says, "I don't know what I want sometimes. Maybe I love her too much."
"How do you love somebody too much?"
"Very carefully." He is staring at the empty space between his knees. "I don't want to hurt her."
"So you wouldn't cheat on her?"
He looks at her and grins slyly. "Well, I didn't say that, did I? But I don't think I would tell her if I did."
She smiles at him. "Well, aren't you the gentleman!"
He smiles at her, then looks away. She thinks he is embarrassed. Then she sees that he is looking at a large tarp draped over something near the bulkhead. The tarp has started flapping noisily in the wind. He gets to his feet and goes to investigate. He pulls the tarp off the object. She dimly makes out a large circular disk about eight feet in diameter. There is a light-colored spiral painted on it.
"Oh my gosh," he says.
"What is it?"
"It's a knife-board."
"You throw knives at it. Well you probably don't. I used to."
In the moonlight he can see her looking at him questioningly.
"I used to be a clown, in a circus. This was part of my act. You know, you strap a girl up here, it spins around, and you throw knives at her."
"That sounds pretty funny," she deadpans.
"Well, you have to tell jokes too."
"So you're telling me this is your carry-on luggage?" she asks, pointing at the knife board.
"No. It must belong to the ship or something. Tomorrow is circus day I think. Oh, and look, a unicycle." He pulls a unicycle out from behind the knife board and immediately mounts it, balancing easily on the gently rolling deck. "I never rode a unicycle on a ship before."
"You ride unicycles, throw knives, dance, write poetry -- is there anything you don't do?"
He glances at her as he wheels back and forth. "I'm not very good at cheating," he says. "But I'm working on it." He spins the cycle around to face her. The tire squeaks on the polished deck. "I'm not very good at giving up either."
"Well maybe I can help you," she says, sitting up and crossing her legs.
"With the cheating or the giving up?"
"Well, what are your priorities?" she asks, her voice sultry and seductive.
"I don't know. Where do you think you can help the most?" He gets down off the unicycle and stands there holding it with one hand.
"Actually, now that you mention it, I don't think I'm very good at getting people to give up. I'm too nice."
"Yes, that would make things difficult."
"And if you must know, I'm beginning to think I may have a weakness for clowns."
He turns the unicycle upside down and spins the wheel with his hand. He looks at her through the moving spokes. "That's too bad because, technically, I'm not a clown. I was a clown."
"What, are you retired or something?"
He does not answer right away. He looks down at the deck. He turns the unicycle over and sets it down. The wheel stops spinning with a little squeak. "My license was revoked." He's still looking at the deck.
She tries not to laugh but it's no use. "What did you do, hurt somebody with a knife?"
He looks up at her suddenly, his mouth ajar. He seems about to speak but he hesitates. "No -- yes -- I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?"
He looks up at the moon. The clouds are sweeping under it. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Come on, you can tell me. I won't tell anyone."
He looks at her, wondering if she will understand. "Let's just say that nobody was hurt. Not physically anyway. The Board of Jesters and Justice classified what I did as 'Conduct Unbecoming a Clown Involving the Unfunny use of a Prop on an Innocent.'"
"That does sound serious."
"Yes," he looks down at the deck again. "I guess it rather was."
"So what does it mean? You can never be a clown again?"
"Two years. My license has been revoked for two years minimum. Technically, I'm on probation. I'm not even supposed to tell jokes."
"Really! Well I won't tell anyone but I don't think you've been taking that very seriously."
"Really?" He's grinning, and she can see his dimples again. "You think I told a joke? When? Was it funny?"
She smiles broadly. "You just can't help yourself can you? You're like, a pathological clown."
"Something like that, I guess." His grin fades. "I miss it. I was pretty good with the knives," he says, nodding toward the knife board. Suddenly the ex-clown looks very sad.
"You should show me," she says, getting to her feet.
"No, I shouldn't."
"Oh come on. I won't tell a soul."
He looks at her uncertainly, thinking, weighing the idea.
She's not giving up. She goes to the knife board and pulls it to the center of the deck. It is on large casters and rolls easily. "Come on, what's the worst thing that can happen? So maybe you miss this thing and throw a knife overboard. One less knife in the world isn't going to kill anybody. The world could do with a few less knives if you ask me."
He sets the unicycle down and walks to the knife board. "I never miss." The knife board is on a platform with four wheels. He sets the brake on each of the four wheels with his foot. He goes around to the back of the knife board and finds the knife bag hanging on a hook sticking out of the frame. The bag is made of heavy black cloth with a string around the top to cinch it shut. He opens it and reaches into the bag, pulling out a knife. He holds it up and looks at it. The moonlight glints off the blade.
"Let me see that."
He hands it to her, handle first. "Careful, it's sharp." She holds the knife in her hand, turning it slightly as she inspects it. It measures about 10-inches long. It has a silver handle and a dagger-like blade that tapers to a point. It feels heavy in her hand. It reminds her of her grandmother's letter opener.
She hands it back to him. "OK then, let's see what you can do."
He takes it from her. She is looking at him, wondering what he is waiting for. The moon is reflected in her eyes. He does not want to break the spell. Finally, he turns from her and goes to the knife board. He finds the switch on the back and turns it on. Slowly, the eight-foot diameter disk begins to spin. He walks back to where she is standing. The big blue circle with the yellow spiral painted on it is spinning faster, gaining momentum. She watches it. The spinning spiral is starting to make her feel dizzy.
He goes back to the knife board and flips the switch. The board begins to slow its spinning.
"What's the matter?" she asks, as he walks back to her.
"It's spinning too fast."
"The knives won't stick if it's spinning too fast."
"Well what is it? Something wrong with the motor?"
"No, the motor is fine. But some of these, the motor is designed to work with a little more weight."
She looks at the knife board. It's spinning slowly now.
"Do you want to get up there?" He nods at the knife board.
He turns to the board and points out its features. "There are two little platforms for your feet. Those straps go around your ankles. There's another one for your waist. And then there are two handles you hang on to."
"And then what?" She looks at him, her brow furrowed, her mouth ajar.
"Well, I turn it on, and -- you don't get dizzy do you?"
"I don't think so. I used to be a cheerleader. I did a lot of cart-wheels." She does a cart-wheel on the deck, her long nightgown flowing like a flag behind her upturned legs. She lands on her feet and does a little curtsy, smiling at him.
"Very nice," he says, smiling. "Well OK, get up there."
She looks at the knife board, then looks at him. "You think I'm going to let you throw knives at me?"
"Not at you. Near you. I'm a clown, not a killer."
She swallows, and twists her lips unconsciously as she thinks this over.
"What's the matter? Don't you trust me?"
She looks into his eyes. He looks so serious, and so sure of himself. She doesn't want to disappoint him. She wants to trust him. Anyway, there must be a trick to it. She always wanted to be in the circus.
"OK, fine. I'll do it. But you know what? If you hurt me," she points a finger at him, "if you so much as scratch me, you'll never work as a clown again. Ever."
"If I hurt you, I don't think I'd ever want to work as a clown again."
They walk over to the knife board and he holds it steady while she climbs into position. The platforms for her feet are three feet apart. She has to pull the hem of her nightgown up above her knees to spread her legs and then she almost loses her balance. He holds out a hand and she grabs it to keep from falling forward. Then she fastens the belt around her waist. He fastens the straps around her ankles. He admires her calves and her feet. He is tempted to reach out and stroke her calf, to run his hand across the lush topography of her bare foot, but he resists. She reaches above her head and with her arms outstretched takes hold of the two large pegs that protrude from the large circular platform on which she is now mounted.
He walks back to the unicycle, about 20 feet from the knife board. He mounts the unicycle, and rides in a small circle. He stops, rolling back and forth in place, looking at her. With her white nightgown spread wide at her knees, and her outstretched arms, she reminds him of an angel. But then she always did. He reaches into the knife bag.
"You're not going to ride that thing!" she says, sounding genuinely worried.
"Why not?" He pulls a strip of black cloth from the bag.
"Because -- because it will make you unsteady!"
He is clutching the string of the knife bag in his teeth while tying the blindfold around his head.
"Blindfolded!" She lets go of the pegs momentarily, holding out her arms, as if to stop a charging dog. "No!"
He removes the bag from his mouth, then rides in a circle while blindfolded. "Look, I like you."
"So you say."
"Well I'm not going to hurt you."
"No, you're going to kill me. And you won't even know because you're blindfolded."
"Think of it as a trust-building exercise."
"I trust you -- I trust you. You don't have to do this."
"Yes I do. And no, you don't trust me."
"I do!" She is practically shouting.
"No you don't." His voice is calm. "And don't lie -- you're no good at it."
"Yes, I guess you are the world-champion liar."
He smiles. Then he rides tentatively toward her, one arm outstretched in front of him. "Where are you?"
He shifts course, turning toward her. "Keep talking."
"What are you doing?"
He stops a few feet from her and reaches into the knife bag. He pulls out another strip of black cloth. He holds it out. "Put this on."
"It will calm you down."
"What am I, like a racehorse now?"
"Something like that." His broad smile reminds her of Sammy Davis Jr.
She leans out and takes the blindfold. She ties it around her head.
He turns the unicycle and the wheel squeaks on the deck. He pedals back to his spot about 20 feet in front of the knife board. The wheel squeaks again as he swivels around to face her. He balances there, wheeling back and forth a few inches at a time. He tries to visualize her. He imagines her nightgown hanging loosely on her perfect body. He feels the sea breeze blowing steadily. In his mind's eye, he sees strands of her hair blowing across her beautiful face. He imagines her pushing the hair back over her ear.
"What's going on?" She sounds impatient.
"Hold your horses," he says.
"I am the horse, remember?"
He smiles. "I was thinking," he pauses.
She can't pass up the opportunity. "There's a first time for everything."
"Yeah, well, I was thinking maybe you should take your dress off."
"That sounds just like something you would be thinking. This is getting a little ridiculous."
"I just ... I just don't want to put any holes in your dress, what with the wind and all. Usually the girl on the board wears a spandex suit, or a bikini."
"You know what -- it's OK. It's an old nightgown. A little hole is not going to be a big deal. I always wanted a ventilated nightgown. Let's just not get blood on it, OK?"
"OK. But if I were you, I'd take it off."
"Well, if you want to take your clothes off, be my guest." She hears the unicycle clatter to the deck.
"What was that?" She sounds worried.
"I'm going to take my clothes off."
"You know, you don't have to do that. I was just kidding. Anyway, I can't see anything. So what difference does it make? You could say you are going to paint your body green. I wouldn't know the difference."
"I'm going to throw my clothes at you."
"What!" Now she sounds alarmed.
"Then you'll know. And it will be a good warm-up exercise."
"This is crazy." His shirt lands on her head. She pulls it off.
"Did you feel that?"
"No," she lies.
His pants hit her at chest level.
"How about that? Feel that?"
"No." She lets go of the shirt as she tries to grab for the pants, but she's not quick enough. She's thinking he has pretty good aim for a blindfolded man.
"I'm better with the knives," he says. "One more thing."
She feels something soft bounce off her left foot. There is a gap at the bottom of her blindfold and she can just make out a pair of socks nestled together. They have landed on the deck near his shirt and pants.
"Did you feel that?"
"You know what? I think you just threw your clothes overboard."
"No way!" he says, and quickly reaches to pull up his blindfold. He sees the pile of clothes at the foot of the knife board. He takes a look at the woman on the board, her arms and legs outstretched, her nightgown rippling in the breeze. She is truly beautiful. He smiles and lowers his blindfold. "I'm going to have to trust you on that." He gets back on the unicycle.
"What are you going to tell your wife when she asks you what happened to your clothes?"
"I'll tell her that I was about to start throwing knives at the second most beautiful woman in the world when I decided to take off my clothes and throw them at her and then I accidentally threw them overboard."
"Yes, of course. Why didn't I think of that?" She smiles. "I'm still wondering why you took them off in the first place."
"I didn't want to get blood on them."
"That's not funny." She is not smiling.
"OK, are we ready?"
"Ready for what?"
"Ready for me to start throwing the knives?"
"Oh. You're not going to hurt me?"
"Never. Just don't move your arms or your legs -- or your head. Don't move anything."
"OK boss." She always liked magic tricks. This was going to be interesting.
He balances on the unicycle, wheeling back and forth a few inches at a time. Holding the bag of knives in his left hand, he raises up a knife over his head with his right. Then in a flash, he swings the knife.
She hears a quick whoosh and a loud THUNK! She can feel the knife vibrating on the board. She does not know where it has hit, but it sounds close. Damn close.
"Wait! Stop!" She peers through the gap in her blindfold and spots the knife just an inch from her right knee, and three inches below the hem of her nightgown.
"What's the matter?"
"You almost hit me! That's what's the matter."
"But I didn't hit you."
"Just wait a second."
"OK." He waits, wheeling back and forth on his unicycle.
She decides to take off her nightgown. Truth is, she bought it special for this trip. She does not want to have to explain how it got holes in it. And certainly she does not want blood on it. She will keep her panties and her bra on. She thinks they will be fine. He won't get that close with his damn knives, will he?
"What's going on?" he asks.
"I'm just praying. Give me a second." In fact, she is struggling to get the nightgown off without unbuckling the heavy leather belt around her waist. She is sure that if she unbuckles the waist belt, she will lose her balance and fall off the board. She feels like Harry Houdini trying to get out of a straight-jacket.
"You don't have to pray," he says. "I told you, I'm not going to hurt you. You can choose to be afraid. Or you can choose to have a good time. It's up to you."
She has managed to get her nightgown over her shoulders. "I'm trying to have a good time. I just need to pray first. Show a little respect for other people's religions."
He bows his head and clasps his hands together, holding the bag of knives between his hands. This makes it a little harder to balance on the unicycle, but he manages.
She drops her nightgown. It lands on the pile of his clothes. The warm breeze blows across her bare skin. It feels good. "OK, I'm ready. Fire away." She knows there has to be some trick. She just doesn't know what it is yet.
"You have your arms in position, holding the handles, right?" He sounds genuinely concerned.
She tightens her grip on the handles. "Yeah."
He wheels over to her tentatively, his arms outstretched on account of his blindness. She can hear the slight squeaking of the unicycle wheel on the deck as he gets closer.
"Now what?" she asks.
"I have to turn it on," he says.
Just then she feels a chill on her belly. She gasps. He has pressed the palm of his hand against her navel. He immediately pulls it away.
"Sorry, sorry," he stammers. "I didn't mean to do that. That was an accident. I swear."
She doesn't say anything. She isn't sure what to say. She is not sure if she believes him.
He carefully wheels around to the back of the knife board. "Are you OK?" he asks.
He finds the switch and the large round platform begins to rotate slowly clockwise.
"Oh dear," she says softly. The butterflies are coming alive near where he touched her.
"Yes darling," he says as he wheels the unicycle past her, returning to his position 20 feet in front of the knife board.
But she's not listening. She's upside down, and her head is spinning.
"I'm glad you took off your dress," he says.
She is right-side up now. "I bet you are."
"OK, are we ready?"
"Let's get it over with."
Again she hears a whoosh and a THUNK! She peers out of the gap in her blindfold and sees the knife just two inches from the inner thigh of her right leg. It's a good thing she took off her nightgown.
"Of course." His voice is calm and reassuring.
THUNK! The third knife lands near her waist. THUNK! The fourth near her ribs.
Seeing that he seems to know what he is doing, she starts to relax.
"So I was wondering," he says, "would you go out with me when we get back to the states?"
She can't see it, but she thinks the fifth knife has landed near her right armpit. She is determined not to be afraid. There must be some trick.
"I am out with you," she says. "I'm out in the -- where are we?"
"The South Pacific I think."
"How much farther out do you want to go?" she asks.
"Well I was just thinking it might be nice to go out with you when your feet are firmly planted on the ground. I feel like maybe the sea breeze and the moonlight are having an undue influence on your thinking."
"You know, I wouldn't be so worried about the breeze and the moon if I were you. What about the undue influence of somebody throwing knives at you?"
He smiles. "I'm not throwing knives at you. It's all in your head."
Behind her blindfold, she rolls her eyes. "That's such crap. I held that knife in my hand. That was real."
"But I never threw it at you."
"I don't know what you're talking about," she says.
"Near you but not at you," he says.
"Anyway, it would never work," she says, returning to his question.
"Not in a million years."
"I could wait."
"You're gonna wait a million years?" she asks.
She opens her mouth but no words come out. She is speechless.
Finally, she says, "I don't know if I'm going to be around in a million years."
"Well maybe I can help you with that."
"A good diet has been shown to extend life."
"If you know of a diet that makes you live a million years, maybe I should go to lunch with you."
"I wish you would," he says. "It could add a few thousand years to your life."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Why do you have to make everything so adversarial? I guy can't even make a joke."
"Adversarial? Me? Hey, you're the one throwing the knives."
"I wish you'd quit saying that."
"Why? It's true."
"No it's not."
"I think you're in denial," she says.
"No, this is not the Nile," he says. "This is the Pacific Ocean. Big difference."
She smiles. "Hah hah, very funny."
"So are you going to go to lunch with me? I'll show you my special diet."
"I'm not sure I want to live a million years."
"Well -- I mean -- is there going to be Social Security?"
"No. No, that's history in 14 years. But there will be hospice care."
"So in a million years we're going to be dying?"
"We're dying now," he says. "But slowly."
"Well maybe you should get hospice care now?"
"Believe me, if I could get good hospice care right now, I would definitely do it."
"You probably could get good hospice care now."
"Good hospice care? I want a pretty lady who will come and sit by my bed and read me the newspaper -- starting with the letters to the editor. Then she will put her hand on my feverish brow and pour me a nice cool glass of water. Did you ever see that movie, 'The English Patient?'"
"Yes. You could get care like that. You just need to know who to call," she says.
"Whom to call," he corrects her.
"Should I call that nurse lady, the actress -- what was her name?"
"Yes, yes," he says. "That sounds right. Should I call her?"
"Well I don't know if she is really available for hospice care. She's an actress."
"Well I could say it was for a movie. I could say there were hidden cameras all around."
"Except that would be a lie."
"Oh, yes. I suppose you're right. Whom should I call?"
"Well if you let me down from here, I will tell you whom to call."
"We're almost done."
"How do you know when we're done?
"When I run out of knives."
"How many knives do you have left?
"I don't know. I haven't counted them. I think we're close though."
"So is this your fantasy? To throw knives at me?"
"No, my fantasy is that one of these days I'll get you to believe that I am not throwing knives at you."
"Well, I'm not sure this is the best approach."
"How would you do it?"
"I don't know but this is definitely not it."
"Well, when you figure it out, let me know. Meanwhile, don't move a muscle."
"You know what I think? I think you're a little obsessed with me."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Are you saying you're not obsessed?"
"No. I am, but not just a little."
"See, I knew it!"
"Would you prefer that I be disinterested -- play hard to get?"
"No, but the obsessiveness does worry me."
"Well in my experience, these things end badly."
"You have experience with this?"
"Yes, a little," she says.
"Well in my experience, real love stories don't end badly."
"Oh, so this is a love story?" she asks.
"What did you think it was -- a murder-mystery?"
"So there is going to be a happy ending?"
"There is no ending."
"No ending?" she asks.
"Of course not. Real love stories never end."
She has to think about this for a moment.
"A happy middle then -- does the story have a happy middle?"
"I do believe this is the middle. Are you happy?"
She is not sure if she is happy. Her arms are getting tired, especially when she is in the upside down position.
"I think I'm getting dizzy."
She hears another THUNK! But this time it seems like there is a second THUNK!, like a quick echo.
"Are you throwing two knives at once now?"
"No. Why?" His voice sounds a little more distant somehow.
"Because I heard two noises. Like two knives."
He swings his arm to throw again. But there is no sound this time.
He wonders if he has gotten turned around on his unicycle and missed the knife board entirely.
"Where are you?" he asks.
"I'm right here," she says.
But her voice sounds oddly distant. He listens. He hears a strange noise, like the low rumble of a bowling ball, and it's moving across the deck. He pulls up his blindfold. She is gone! And the knifeboard has gone too! Then he sees it -- the eight-foot disk has detached itself from the spindle and is rolling across the deck toward the railing of the ship. The disk is slowing down as the ship rolls gently to starboard. He scarcely notices the blindfolded woman in her underwear. What he does notice is that the disk is turning. In a few seconds, she will be facing away from him as the disk rolls back across the deck -- unless the wind catches the disk and tips it over the railing.
"What's happening!" she calls out, sensing that something is wrong.
"I'm coming," he shouts, as he pedals furiously toward the disk which is now parallel to the railing and nearly motionless. The disk is in a precarious state of equilibrium, and might topple over the railing and into the sea at the slightest breath of wind.
Just as he reaches out to try to grab ahold of the back-side of the disk, the wind picks up. But the disk tilts toward him, away from the railing. He tries to hold it up, but he's forgotten that he's on a unicycle. He topples to the ground, and the heavy disk crashes down on top of him.
Suddenly there is silence, and stillness.
She is laying on the large disk in her underwear. As the breeze blows over her skin, she is wondering if she has died. Perhaps she is floating up to heaven. Maybe not. She removes her blindfold, looks around, and sits up.
"Where are you?" she asks.
"Down here," he says. His voice is muffled and strained beneath the heavy disk.
"Oh God!" she says, realizing that she must be crushing him under her weight. "Hang on, I'm coming." She hurriedly unbuckles the straps that hold her to the disk.
When she frees herself, she hops off the disk gingerly.
"Are you OK?"
From beneath the disk, he can only see her ankles and her upside-down head peering at him.
She can't see much in the dim light, but she can make out that he is only wearing his underpants. She strains to see more, but it's no use.
"Yeah, the unicycle got the worst of it."
"Well hang on, let me get dressed." She dashes across the deck and hurriedly puts on her nightgown. Then she grabs his clothes and brings them to him.
"Here, put these on." She tosses the clothes under the disk.
"Uh, maybe you could lift it up a bit?"
"Oh, sure." She lifts one side of the heavy disk until it is at about the level of her waist. Now he has enough room to dress, though from his grunts and groans she guesses it to be a bit of a struggle.
Finally, he crawls out from under the disk. He stands up and buttons his shirt. Then he helps her roll the disk back to the knife board. They get the disk back on the spindle with some difficulty, then roll the knife board back to its proper place in the shadow of the bulkhead. He tucks the unicycle behind the knife board. The handlebars are bent, but that can be fixed later. He is about to throw the tarp over everything.
"Wait," she says.
"What's the secret?"
"Oh." Normally he doesn't like to give away his secrets, but she has been such a good sport, and he feels a little guilty about what happened. He hadn't noticed that the spindle lock-pin was missing. "Well, the secret." He looks at her, gathering his thoughts. "The secret is to never let go."
She looks at him questioningly.
"Never let go. If you let go, somebody could get hurt." He retrieves the knife bag from behind the disk. He pulls out a knife. "The knives are sharp. But a knife won't hurt you. A knife can be your friend, or your enemy. You decide." He is very serious now, like a teacher with a promising student. She is mesmerized. "Each of these knives is special. There is a battery in the handle -- an infrared beam shines out of the base of the handle. When you swing the knife, it activates one of these receivers on the knifeboard." He points with the knife at the eight small shiny circles on the edge of the disk. "It's like the remote control for your TV, only it's easier to use. You just point it."
He deftly flips the knife so that the base of the handle points at one of the shiny circles.
She is startled by the sound and the sudden appearance of a silver knife on the knife board. She sees that he is still holding his knife. He reaches down and pushes the knife that is protruding from the surface into the knifeboard. The knife easily slides into the board, and disappears.
"Underneath the surface, there is a mechanism that makes the knives appear. It happens so fast, you can't even tell where the knife came from. You just assume I'm throwing knives, but I'm not. I just pretend. I never let go, and then, while the audience is watching the girl on the board, I tuck the knife up my sleeve."
She looks at him, and smiles. "Wow."
He nods. He puts his knife back in the bag and hangs the bag on its peg.
"How many knives can you throw?" she asks.
"Pretend to throw." He is arranging the tarp on the knifeboard. "This board will extrude 12 knives. If you pretend to throw more, they will retract. The sound is the same either way, so we could have gone on until the batteries died."
"Well thanks for sparing me." She walks over to the railing. He follows her. He can see the first hints of dawn on the horizon.
"I want to ask you something," he says.
"Are you gay?"
"What do you think?" She looks at him and seems genuinely interested in his response.
"Oh don't leave it up to me. If you leave it up to me, I'm liable to think the wrong thing."
She smiles slightly as she leans over the railing, staring out to where the sun will soon rise. The glow of dawn casts a reddish tint on her cheeks. "Sometimes," she says at last.
He looks at her, knitting his brows, anxious to hear more. But she does not speak. Finally he says, "When are you not gay?"
"When I have a lot of bills to pay. When somebody gets sick. When I get a parking ticket." She gives him a sidelong glance. She sees that he is pressing his lips together as if forcing himself not to speak. Is he angry? She can't tell. "Oh, I thought you meant, am I gay, like happy."
"Sure you did," he says flatly. He stares out at the brightening horizon. There is no hint of emotion on his face.
"Does it matter?" she asks.
He doesn't answer. He is looking down, watching the waves. "Not really," he finally says. He looks at her. "Either way, I'd still like you."
"Either way?" she asks.
"Well, whatever way it is. I guess there's a third way."
She smiles and returns her gaze to the horizon. "At least."
"You're not going to tell me are you?"
"Can't a girl keep some secrets?"
"Not if I can help it." He smiles. This brings the dimples back to his face. He looks at her. Her body is slender and athletic. "Are you a vegan?" he asks.
She looks at him and laughs a little laugh as if his question is ridiculous. "I'm Italian!"
"Who ever heard of an Italian vegan?"
"What about Popeye?"
"What about Popeye?" she shoots back.
"He ate spinach."
"So what? He wasn't Italian." She's pretty sure about this.
"I think he was."
"He ate Olive Oil."
"Olive Oil? Everybody eats Olive Oil, but that doesn't make everybody Italian. I eat Olive Oil, but that doesn't make me a vegan."
"But it means you could be a vegan."
"Or I could be Italian."
"Or you could have a girlfriend named Olive Oil, like Popeye did," he smiles.
"Or I could be an Italian vegan with a girlfriend named Olive Oil."
They both laugh simultaneously. Then for a moment they are silent.
"Now I want to ask you something," she says.
"No, I'm not gay." He's trying not to laugh.
She slaps his shoulder playfully. "You think you're so damn funny don't you? You're lucky I don't report you to the Department of Jesters, or whatever you call it. That's not my question. My question is," she pauses dramatically, "'Why me?'"
"Why you?" he asks.
"A guy like you -- I mean you're a talented guy, funny, with a great imagination. With an imagination like yours, you could have any girl in the world. Imagine that."
He looks at her beautiful face. "I don't want any girl in the world. I want you. Imagine that." He looks at her calmly. She is closer to him now. The morning light is soft on her face. There is a sparkle in her eyes.
"Is it because I'm gay -- I mean, because you think I'm gay?"
"No," he says softly. He knows this is not it. He wants to tell her how beautiful she is. But it seems like such a stupid answer. Finally he says, "I don't know. Maybe it's just because I think I might have a chance."
She grins at him slyly. "What would ever give you that idea?"
"Well, you let me throw those knives at you. Most girls wouldn't do that."
She rolls her eyes. "Most girls won't argue with a man holding a knife."
He looks out to the horizon. The bright spark of the sun is just peeking over. "I should get back to bed."
"Wait," she says, moving a little closer. "You're not a vampire are you?"
He smiles but does not answer.
"I want to ask you one more thing," she says.
He looks into her big dark eyes. She looks serious. He can tell her question won't wait. He can't refuse her. "Yes."
"What if I'm not like how you think I am?"
He looks at her questioningly.
"What if I drive an SUV?"
His jaw drops and he steps back from her, the color draining from his face.
"It's not a very big SUV," she adds quickly.
He is leaning over the railing. He looks like he might puke.
"Do you keep the tires inflated?" he croaks, sounding as if he has a chicken bone lodged in his throat.
She moves to him and tries to comfort him by putting her hand on his back. "Well, I think so," but she is not sure.
"Do you drive the speed limit?" he asks, sounding a bit more normal now.
"Yes -- I mean -- unless I'm running late."
He stands upright, and puts both hands on his face. When he takes his hands away, she can see the tears. He wipes his cheek with his sleeve, then looks at her sadly.
"I want you to drive the speed limit, OK?"
"OK." She nods.
"And wear your seatbelt."
"Promise?" He isn't kidding.
She reaches out and touches his sleeve gently. "I will. I promise."
"OK," he tries to smile.
"I want to ask you one more thing," she says, thinking she might be able to cheer him up.
"Uh huh," he says weakly.
"Remember when we were talking on the bus?"
"You said something about how I had the face of an angel."
"Hair of an angel," he says.
She swallows and looks a little sad. "So now you're saying I don't have the face of an angel?"
"No, I didn't say that," he responds quickly, holding up his hand defensively. "I would never say that. Face of an angel -- and hair too."
She smiles. "OK, and I gather you're an atheist."
"Yes," he nods.
"So tell me something."
She looks at him, trying to phrase her question. "What does an atheist want to do with an angel?"
He bites his lip, as if to control his smile muscles. It's a good question, and he needs a good answer. Finally he says, "You know, I hadn't really thought that far ahead."
"Maybe you should think about it." She wets her lips.
"I will," he says looking at her tenderly. "I definitely will."
"Is it just physical, a physical attraction -- just lust?"
He looks down contritely, as if he has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. There is no use denying it. "There is that. I do have lust in my heart."
"Why do you have lust in your heart?"
He looks up at her, his eyes brightening, and she knows another joke is coming. "Well, I didn't know where else to put it."
She smiles. "I know lots of guys who keep their lust in another place."
"Well, I do keep some in another place too, but it wouldn't all fit, so I mostly keep it in my heart."
"Is there any love in there?" She puts her hand on his chest.
He looks down at her hand and smiles. "Sure."
"How much?" She looks at him questioningly.
"How much do you want to be loved?"
"Too much," she whispers. The morning light glitters in her eyes. "You have to decide," she says.
She takes her hand away and rests it on the railing, then looks away toward the sun. "What you want -- who you want."
She looks at him a little irritated. Is he really so obtuse, or is he just pretending to be dumb? "Me or her -- you have to decide which it will be. You can't have it both ways."
"Sure I can." He sounds serious but he's smiling.
She's not sure if another joke is coming. "How are you going to manage that?
"Use your imagination -- and mine." There is a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
The breeze picks up and catches the wide collar of her nightgown. It slips off her shoulder, exposing her smooth curving skin to dawn's early light. She reaches up and pulls the white fabric back toward her neck and holds it in place. The breeze is blowing strands of her hair. Though they are black, the strands glitter with gold in the light. The sight of her is starting to make him dizzy. "I have to go," he says hastily. He closes his eyes tightly, then moves quickly past her and down the open corridor toward the cabin where his wife is sleeping.
She turns to watch him go. It occurs to her that she forgot to tell him about hospice care. She opens her mouth to call out to him. But she has kept him long enough, and she knows he will be back. She smiles. It's a beautiful smile.