Dinner at Sea
by Patric Quinn
The cruise ship whispered toward midnight; a billion tiny stars spilled across the sky like a galactic bowl tipped over the calm black sea. The Senator leaned on the polished rail and watched the last quarter of the Caribbean moon rise to its zenith. His aide stood in the shadows beside him waiting, listening to the soft wash of the liner’s passage, the motion as satin as the wisp of tropical breeze caressing her cheek.
“Brilliant,” mused the Senator as if to the far horizon.
“Your questionnaire, Kimberly. I was just thinking how remarkable it was.”
“A fusion of political science and psychology; I have degrees in both.”
“Yes,” said the Senator, “and they have proved useful.”
“It was an intricate assignment. The overt analysis was as you’d expect for each state. But the subliminal interpretation was a real revelation; like a nationwide truth serum. Nearly unanimous. I guess I’m a little proud of that.”
“That’s why I call it brilliant, young lady. We discovered what’s in their hearts.” The Senator looked up at the crescent moon and lifted his wristwatch to a patch of light. “It’s almost midnight.”
He turned away from the rail and she followed. They walked the empty deck to the ballroom doors; he stopped and cocked his ear. “Listen.” He smiled. “A successful party has its own sound; you know what to expect before you go in.” They pushed through the leather-padded doors into a mellow wave of celebration.
Under clouds of glittering chandeliers, round tables scintillated in crisp white linen, silver and sparkling crystal. The music of dining carried softly like wind chimes; the full round tables abuzz with genteel gaiety were spread like blossoms in perfect white groundcover from the dance floor to the mirrored reaches of the ballroom.
Romantic passengers fox-trotted slowly around the dance floor to the easy swing of the big-band sound. ‘Moonlight Cocktails’ harmonized with the delicate melody of laughter and smiles played at the tables by silver-haired men whose years filled their white tuxedo jackets, by women hopefully blonde, gracefully gray or rebelliously neither. No matter how they wore their many years, their eyes twinkled with the pleasure of this evening.
The Senator strolled among the tables amid laughing banter and smiles that coaxed etched wrinkles into pleasing curves. He watched candlelit eyes sparkle like the ice sculptures aglint on the sumptuous buffet tables and stopped frequently as he wove toward the dais to share a chuckle, shine a grin and pat a shoulder.
Wonderful, Senator... marvelous... (sigh)... danced my little feet off... (giggle)... if I eat another thing... (chuckle)... or have another drink... (laughter)... never going home... (laughter)... so much love... (silence)... sentimental old sweetheart... (laughter)... enjoy, enjoy....
The ting-ting of his fork against the water goblet was more insistent than loud. The disc jockey faded the music slowly; the lively wave of voices quieted to a ripple and then to silence.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” said the Senator. “I see you’re still a great party crowd.” They laughed and clapped. “On the occasion of this last Midnight Buffet, I’d like to ask you a question.” He raised his arms to encompass the room. “Hasn’t this been a wonderful cruise?” The Senator beamed into the bursting tide of applause while he pressed one hand to his chest modestly and waved the other to halt the swell.
He held up his hands and grinned. “Don’t blame me. I’m merely a servant of the people. Your very own children wanted this for you; your government simply responded to their heartfelt wishes. In all the furor, rhetoric and confusion about the future of Social Security, a future that deeply worries them, your children were thinking about you. Your children want the system fixed, yes, but they didn’t want you to face your senior years in uncertainty and anxiety.
“After all of your sacrifices for them, your children wanted your time to be golden until the end.” Applause filled the Senator’s hesitation. “You are our most veteran seniors, our oldest Americans. Within the past few months each of you received the first issue of the new Senior Golden Journey packet, two weeks of sailing and playing and shopping and eating; two weeks of sheer luxury.
“Ah” — the Senator smiled — “and what great food.” A moan of pleasure oozed from the tables. “And this wonderful icing on your cake of retirement didn’t cost you a penny. Hasn’t this gift from our young people been a memorable and marvelous journey?”
A storm of proud applause and cheers answered him. “Wonderful! Wonderful!” The cries surfaced through the happy uproar. The Senator patiently quieted the crowd again.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, at this last meal, on your last night at sea, I ask you, each and every one, to share one last drink with me; a toast to the inaugural voyage of The Senior Golden Journey Program, to all those yet to come and to the young people who revealed their hearts to us.”
Applause echoed from the walls while servers at each table set out slender stemmed glasses, poured the toast from freshly opened magnums of champagne and stood back as voices faded to a murmur, then, to expectant waiting.
The Senator rose, his glass glittering as he lifted the crystal in the soft light. “Your children’s wish for you, the Senior Golden Journey. Bon voyage!”
* * *
In the shadows of the deck below them, the crew moved about reloading pallets; the young aide’s lenses glinted in the somber light when she looked at the Senator. His hair was silver and flowing, yet his face was unlined, the skin fresh after so many years in office. The weight of so many decisions didn’t show on him.
“I’m gratified that it went so smoothly,” she said.
“The whole plan, sir, and the budget. There’s light at the end of the tunnel now.”
“There was that lobbyist from Early Bird Restaurants.”
The aide smiled. “The way he questioned the new benefits, I almost thought he understood.”
“He understood the nice fat contract I arranged.”
“Sir, what about those who just turned sixty-five? Will they be involved?”
The Senator gazed at the moon’s slender trail across the water and breathed in the moist salt air. “I think not; this isn’t an immediate benefit. If they notice at all, it reads like a minor item, an obscure transportation provision that comes into play in unspecified circumstances.”
“And you do know how to word legislation, Senator. I’ve learned that.”
“And you, young lady, know how to select a passenger list.” They laughed. “Where do you find these towns?”
“It’s a big country, sir, and the Cornseed Chronicle is not likely to connect with the Rube Gazette. Any reporting will be short-ranged, an unfortunate accident here or there that will interest the locals for a day or two.”
“One thing I’ve learned, Kimberly: when an accident saves someone money and trouble, they contain their grief and count their blessings. And we know their secret hearts, don’t we?”
“Yes, sir, I believe we do.”
“So, we’ll be busy catching up for a while, but then it will all settle into a quiet routine.”
“What about you, Senator?”
The crew worked methodically in the half-light below. The aide thought she saw her mentor smile, maybe only the reflected moonlight playing on his old pink face.
“Government employees don’t participate in Social Security, do they?”
“I could fix Social Security with little trouble, a little more money. It's really about the whole senior scenario. Not just the cost of government programs, but you young people and day-to-day old folks’ care. The extra care, the errands, doctors, prescriptions, looking out for them, just the thinking.” Kimberly was attentive to his quiet voice in the dark.
“And they expect you to do it all. While they sit snug in all those houses, with all that property. And all that wealth.” He fell silent for a few minutes, and Kimberly waited until he spoke again. “I’ll be in Washington; so, mind your regulations, young lady. You do want to continue in government, rise to more responsible positions?”
“I expected so. Then on the next cruise...”
The aide felt a chill though the night was warm. “The next cruise, sir?”
“Yes, Kimberly, I’ve arranged a promotion for you. You’ve been exceptionally... practical...in developing this program, refreshingly unsentimental. I’m pleased to tell you that you are the new director of the Senior Golden Journey Program.”
“The next cruise, sir?”
“Yes, Kimberly, the next cruise. And all the cruises to come.”
The aide felt the now silent ship around her and stared down at the shadows working below. She shuddered. The next and the next and the next...
The Senator and his aide watched from above as crewmen hauled another body bag from the pile and stretched the dark lump out on the last in a row of laden planks held balanced along the rail like a rank of regimented tongue depressors.
A muted command from the shadows and a crewman tilted the first plank; the black bag whisked off the end and plummeted down through the firefly glow from the portholes. As a finger runs a piano keyboard, the crewmen lifted, the planks tilted, and their cargoes plunged into the midnight sea. The string of brief white geysers collapsed into foam and vanished in the ship’s rolling wake. The crewmen were already preparing another round of burials.
“Just one word of advice, young lady.” There was a subdued chuckle in the Senator’s voice. “Don’t drink the champagne toasts.”
Copyright © 2016 by Patric Quinn