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ICELAND, AN EXCERPT FROM ON BRIGHTEST DAYS

by

Gary Beck



ĺOn Brightest Days', is a novel about a young man's coming of age in the '60's. Roy Cafferty grows up in Hell's Kitchen in New York City. Influenced by a famous activist Catholic priest, he joins the anti-war movement and also works in a well-known off-Broadway theater. Roy experiences many of the extremes of this dynamic period and meets many of the celebrities of the timeů

"* * *

"Roy's summer vacation was just about over when he took the train to Liechtenstein, to meet his friend Tanya for the return trip to America. The train raced from Paris through indolent green countryside and lush fields that were ready to harvest until they reached Dijon, where he changed trains. As he walked through the crowded station he had the weirdest experience. He thought he saw Laurette, the girl he had just parted from forever in Paris. His heart almost stopped. He started to call her but he couldn't speak. When he got close, he saw it wasn't her. He thought he saw her again as the train pulled out and fixed his eyes on her longingly, until she disappeared into the distance. When he got to Liechtenstein, he sold his Eurorail pass to a traveler at the station and took a taxi to the airport. He quickly found Tanya, fetchingly perched on a counter, attracting attention as usual. She was wearing a pink turtle neck mini-dress, with a thick gold chain around her waist and gold stockings. Her hair was cut short and curled. Her pale, striking face highlighted her youth and made her look vulnerable. She also looked tired. Her face lit up when she saw him and she rushed to him and planted kisses on his cheek, carefully avoiding his mouth.

"Hey, baby. How are you?"

"I'm fine. What about you? Are you all right? You look real tired."

"I picked up some kind of bug. I'll tell you about it later. Our flight is boarding soon, so take this joint into the bathroom and take a couple of hits." She handed him a joint and her lighter, pointed to the men's room and shooed him away. He went in and took a few hits and was instantly sailing. When he came out, Tanya was already heading for the boarding gate. Several volunteers were trying to carry her bags and they melted away in disappointment when he reached her. They boarded the huge plane, which wasn't full, so they sat together and had a row to themselves. Tanya asked him about his summer and he told her: "I traveled to Paris and went to your hotel. The manager was still furious with you, for destroying your suite and he wanted to have me arrested." She wasn't the least bit concerned about the hotel, so he told her about Chez Gilbert, the oddball place where he stayed for several weeks. She cracked up laughing when he mentioned that he made enough money to pay rent and eat by giving guided tours of the Louvre to American women tourists.

"That's cool, baby. I bet you did real well with them. Did you meet a girl?"

"Yes. But I don't want to talk about her. What about your summer?"

"It was wild, baby. I met some high fashion people and they loved my look. They paid me a lot of money to model. There were parties every night and we went to these cool clubs for dancing, gambling and sex shows. At a party at my hotel, a producer offered me a part in a James Bond film that they were shooting on the Riviera. I was only in two scenes, but they were high profile. When we finished shooting, we had a wild party and we totaled the entire floor of the hotel. I knew the manager would call the police, so I flew south. I stayed on a big yacht that was a floating party. It was cool." She looked around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned close to him, confidingly. "I wasn't feeling good for a while, so I went to see a doctor. He told me he thought I had syphilis."

She stared at him, waiting for his reaction, searching his face for any sign of disgust. He sensed how afraid she was but he wasn't sure what to say. He tried to remember what he knew about syphilis, but drew a blank.

He asked in concern. "What did he prescribe for you?"

"He gave me antibiotics and told me to come back for blood tests."

When she didn't say more, he prompted. "And?"

"I didn't go back. I didn't like him. He had sweaty hands. Then the yacht moved down the coast. I figured I could wait until I got home."

"I don't know much about syphilis, but I know it's serious."

"That's what the doctor said. He also said that it was contagious. That's why I didn't kiss you on the mouth. He said it spreads through sexual intimacy, so we can't make it anymore. I don't want to give you anything bad."

He took her hand, lovingly. "My poor Tanya. Are you scared?"

"Yeah. I've never been sick. I guess I've been lucky up to now. I don't know how to deal with it."

"When we get to New York, we'll find a good doctor and have him cure you."

She said fatalistically. "It may not be that simple."

"Let's hope it is. I never heard of anyone dying from syphilis. Did you?"

She reluctantly admitted. "No."

"You look exhausted. Why don't you get some sleep. We have a long flight ahead of us."

Roy put the arm rest up and she snuggled next to him, both of her arms wrapped around his arm. They both drifted off and slept for hours until the plane approached Iceland and made a smooth landing. The passengers were requested to remain on board while the plane was serviced, so Roy and Tanya dozed, until they were awakened by loud voices. The one hour service stopover had stretched to three hours and no announcement had been made explaining the delay. Passengers finally started asking questions and they were dissatisfied with the stewardess's lack of information. They requested her to ask the captain how long they would be delayed. She tried to assure them that everything possible was being done and there was no need to bother the captain. This really annoyed several of the already irritated passengers, tempers flared and more of them got involved in the altercation.

Fifteen or twenty people were clamoring for information and others were getting restless. The stewardess fled to the cockpit and a moment later the captain's soothing voice announced, "Sorry for the delay, Ladies and Gentlemen. We have a small technical problem. The ground crew should be out in a few minutes to check it. I'll keep you informed. Meanwhile, why don't you relax and the cabin crew will serve complimentary snacks and beverages. Thank you for flying Icelandic." Resentful murmurs subsided as the passengers were placated by the promise of food and drink. A few minutes later the ground crew arrived and they started tinkering with an engine. Shortly after that the cabin crew began serving slightly frozen turkey sandwiches and free liquor.

Two more hours went by. Despite being served more free booze, everyone was really getting angry. The stewardess made a vague announcement that they should be departing shortly, which further aggravated the passengers. They could see that the mechanics had removed part of the engine and were still working on it on the ground. It was obvious that they would be there for a while. This provoked even the mildest of the travelers and they demanded to see the captain. Indignant voices were getting louder and passengers were restlessly prowling the aisle. The situation was threatening to get out of hand, so the stewardess summoned the captain. He walked confidently into the cabin and he looked like the kind of pilot you would want in an emergency. He was tall, sturdy, graying and mature, but the passengers wanted answers, not reassurances.

He said pleasantly. "We're sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen. We hope to be ready to go in a little while."

One of the loudest complainers, a fat, red-faced, self-important man was not satisfied. "That's what you told us a couple of hours ago."

"We're trying our best."

Red-face said belligerently. "Well, that's not good enough."

A scowling woman chimed in. "How about another flight?"

The captain was apologetic. "Icelandic only has one other plane and it's in New York undergoing maintenance." The scowler shrilled. "So we're stuck here?" The captain tried to keep things low key. "I'm afraid so." The passengers weren't satisfied and the grumbling voices got louder. The captain quickly assessed the mood. "I'll go talk to the chief mechanic and find out how long we'll be."

He walked out to a chorus of nasty comments and threatening remarks. The passengers watched resentfully as he talked to the crew chief. After a short conference with pointing and gestures, the captain used an emergency phone to make a call, then waited with the mechanics. A few minutes later a car drove up and a young man got out. He talked to the captain for a minute, then entered the plane. He was tall, thin, blond, wearing a mod business suit and he had a professional smile that didn't reach his eyes. He said cheerfully.

"Hello. My name is Gunnar. I'm the airline representative and I'm here to help you. The plane has an engine problem that will take a while to repair, so we are putting you up overnight at our expense." Groans, catcalls and expressions of disgust followed this revelation. He held up his hand and signaled for silence. "I know this is not good news. Icelandic Airlines regrets any inconvenience this may cause you. Buses will be here shortly to take you to your accommodations."

Then Gunnar wisely fled, as howls of protest echoed through the aircraft. But there was really nothing anyone could do, so they slowly accepted the fact that they were marooned in Iceland. A few minutes later three buses arrived. Gunnar requested everyone to take their carry-on luggage, and not leave anything on the plane. There was some griping, but most of the passengers had accepted the situation. They filed onto the buses, which slowly drove off and Roy looked out the window at the strange country. The landscape was gray, rocky, desolate and bleakly unchanging. Even though it was summer, there was no grass or greenery anywhere. The few people they saw were wearing short sleeve shirts. Roy quipped to Tanya. "There must be a shortage of ice in Iceland." The bus pulled up in front of a large, dingy motel. They got off and Gunnar assigned rooms, keeping up a cheerful patter to hide his nervousness. His first real problem began when he assigned Tanya to share a room with three other women. One of the women was the scowler from the plane, a true candidate for Salem's virtue patrol. She turned to her two companions and said nastily.

"I'm not sharing my room with a hippie." The others nodded agreement and they flew off to their room to brood about their resentments. Tanya was remarkably restrained at the insult. She took Gunnar aside and quietly suggested that he give her and Roy a room, as a simple solution to the problem. He looked their names up on the passenger manifest and shook his head regretfully.

"I can't do that. You're not married."

"Why don't you just give us the room, please."

"It's against company policy, Miss."

"I've been very patient so far."

"I appreciate that, but there's nothing more I can do."

Tanya had reached her limit. She took Gunnar aside. "Mr. Cafferty and I are going to check into the best hotel in town, at Icelandic's expense. If you don't provide us with transportation immediately, we will organize all the passengers to protest the accommodations. Then we'll get them to complain to the management about how you handled the situation and encourage them to demand a complete refund."

Gunnar stared at her, horrified, way out of his depth and didn't know how to react.

Tanya gave him a sweet barracuda smile. "I'm tired of waiting."

Gunnar jumped as if he got an electric shock. He rushed to his car, gestured and held the door open for Tanya. She regally entered. Roy got in after her and they drove off in complete silence.

When they got to the Reykjavik Hilton, a Field Marshal of cavalry temporarily disguised as a doorman opened the door for them. Tanya thanked Gunnar graciously and said she would charge their expenses to Icelandic. He didn't know what to say and Tanya asked him to notify them when the flight was ready and dismissed him. He drove off, glad to escape without further complications. The doorman had a bellhop carry their bags to the desk, where Tanya requested a small suite with a view. When the manager asked whether it would be cash or charge, she referred him to Gunnar at Icelandic for payment. She gave the bellhop a generous tip in francs and sent him with a large tip for the doorman. Then they were alone in the luxurious suite. Tanya was quite pleased with herself.

"Well, baby, isn't this a lot better than that funky motel?"

"It sure is. What's next?"

"A long, hot shower. Why don't you call room service and order caviar and champagne?"

Roy was astonished at her nerve. "Are you kidding?"

"Absolutely not. Icelandic wants us to be happy, so let's oblige them. If we don't have menus, ask room service to send some."

"Sure."

Room service arrived while Roy was in the shower and Tanya signed the bill, 'Icelandic.' When he came out of the bathroom, they snacked on the delicacies. After they finished, Tanya put the remainder in the small refrigerator near the bar and suggested a nap before dinner. She insisted they sleep together and snuggled child-like against him and was quickly in dreamland. Later they had dinner in the hotel restaurant, again signing 'Icelandic' on the check, then went for a walk. Reykjavik looked more like a small, dreary New England town, than the legendary home of Vikings. When they got back to the hotel, Tanya asked the Field Marshal doorman what people did at night for amusement. He suggested a local nightclub, bowling, or the movies, none of which seemed particularly appealing to her.

"Forget tonight. What can we do during the day?"

"You can visit a local artists' studio, or there's a very interesting shark processing factory." When she didn't respond, he tried the old gambit. "You can go shopping."

"For what? Mukluks? This place is like the moon."

"It's funny that you mention that, Miss."

"Why?"

"Your American space program brought the Apollo astronauts here for training. They thought it was just like the moon."

"That's cool. Where's this shark place?"

"It's a few miles out of town."

"Maybe we'll go there tomorrow. Please have a car for us in the morning."

"Yes, Miss. Do you want a driver?"

She looked at Roy questioningly. He shook his head no and asked the doorman. "Can you get us a map?"

"Yes, sir. Do you need anything else?"

Tanya answered. "No. Give him some money, Roy."

Roy handed him thirty francs and they went inside, followed by the doorman's profuse thanks. Once they were in their suite, Roy almost fell over laughing. Tanya grinned and asked. "What's so funny, baby?"

"You are."

"Why?"

"First you demand the hotel, then the suite, then caviar and champagne, now the car. You're too much."

She said righteously. "If that silly airline did its job properly, we'd be in New York City by now. I'm not going to be miserable because they messed up."

Roy could only shake his head in wonder. "You are too much."

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, they went to the shark factory. The doorman must have phoned ahead, because Tanya was treated like visiting royalty. The employees competed to show her the wonders of shark processing. One of the less effusive guides confessed that the factory was really a cannery, with one difference: they produced a gourmet delicacy, aged shark meat. He took them to the aging section, where he showed them how the process worked. Then he led them outside and proudly displayed the pits where they buried the shark for at least a year, so the maggots could soften the tough flesh. He offered to dig up samples for them as a special treat, but Tanya said they had to leave and headed for the car. Roy thanked the disappointed host and caught up with her. She held her nose.

"Yuk. Did you ever hear anything more disgusting?"

"Don't you like maggots?" Roy asked teasingly.

"Baby, I've eaten a lot of strange things, but rotten, old shark is definitely not on my menu."

"I think you're being unnecessarily squeamish."

"We can go back and get some for you," she said sweetly.

"No, thanks."

They spent the rest of the day lolling around the hotel pool, enjoying the weak, warm sunlight, ordering drinks and snacks, courtesy of Icelandic. After an elegant dinner at the most expensive restaurant in the hotel, they went to a nearby movie and saw 'Bonnie and Clyde.' Roy liked it and Tanya thought it was cool. She struck a dramatic pose and asked. "What do you think, baby, could I be the Icelandic Bonnie?" "Forget it. I'm not robbing any banks." They went back to the hotel and picked up a tourist pamphlet that gave background information about Iceland. When they were relaxing in their suite, Roy suggested they learn a few phrases of Icelandic. Tanya thought that was very funny.

"Why, baby?"

"Just in case we're stuck here for the rest of our lives."

"Wouldn't that be a drag."

"Well, we haven't heard from the airline."

"Why worry about it? For what we're costing them, we'll be the first ones they inform when our flight is ready. Now teach me some Icelandic."

"Sure. Here's the first word. Schnerting."

She repeated the word. "Schnerting. What does it mean?"

He said with a straight face. "Men's bathroom."

She almost fell off her chair laughing. "I don't think that's a priority for me. What else do you have?"

He tried another. "Wet, sloppy daschunds."

"Are you kidding?"

"That's what it sounds like," he said defensively.

"Say it again."

"Wet, sloppy daschunds."

"What does it mean?"

"I'm pleased to meet you."

"I like that. Wet, sloppy daschunds. I'm pleased to meet you. Tell me another phrase."

"Guard your geraniums."

"What?"

"Guard your geraniums."

"What does it mean?"

"Where is the train station?"

"Icelandic just doesn't sound hip. Is there a phrase: where can I score some good smoke?"

Roy concluded that the language lesson was over and closed the book. They planned to visit the artist's studio in the morning and they went to bed early. When they woke up it was raining so hard that they decided to spend a quiet day at the hotel. Tanya explored the hotel shops and Roy caught up on his reading. The next morning, following the directions from the doorman, they walked to the artists' studio. There was a big sign over the door of a dilapidated wooden building, 'Studio'. The windows were closed and curtained and they couldn't tell if anyone was in there, so they knocked. A plain looking old woman in a gingham dress opened the door and said: "Ja?" Roy asked "Is this the artist's studio?" The woman said, "Ja." and gestured for them to come in. Tanya said "Wet, sloppy daschunds." The woman replied, "Dirty old cheddar," then ushered them into the studio.

The artist must have been inspired by a child's arts and crafts book. There were paint spattered easels, crusted brushes, dripping palettes and open tubes of paint everywhere. The artworks were clumsy paintings of elves and goblins, on unfinished hunks of wood. Roy concluded that it may not have been the most awful art in the world, but it was close. The woman proudly displayed piece after piece, babbling to them in Icelandic and giving them the pieces to handle. Roy whispered to Tanya. "They're so bad that the famous six year old nephew who could outpaint Picasso would sneer at them." Tanya got a splinter from one of the elves and had enough of Icelandic art. She smiled at the woman and said "Guard your geraniums," Then she took Roy's hand and they walked out. They heard the woman say "Whiskers are shorter," but they didn't stop for a translation.

Iceland was beginning to lose its glamour. When they got back to the hotel, there was a message with good news from the airline. Their flight would leave that evening at 8:00 PM. They swam in the pool, packed, ate an early dinner, then took a taxi to the airport. Gunnar greeted them disapprovingly and escorted them to the plane. Tanya said grandly: "Wet, sloppy daschunds," then she boarded the plane. She left him shaking his head, relieved that he would probably never see her again.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Beck is a theater director of classic and social issue plays. His translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles as well as his own plays, have been extensively produced Off-Broadway. His poetry has appeared in dozens of periodicals. He is an award winning writer and director of social issue video documentaries and short films.




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