Nicole Nelson is a guest host for “Writers on Writing” on KUCI 88.9 FM in Irvine. She is a longtime member of the prestigious Writer’s Block Party Workshop in Orange County, CA, and holds a PhD in theoretical linguistics from Rutgers University. She also plays flute in a community orchestra. “Passengers” is her first piece of published fiction. Follow her on Twitter: @nan_nicole.
At the beginning of the museum tour, passengers stood in front of a green screen as large as a small billboard. The gift shop at the other end charged fifteen dollars for one souvenir shot of guests on the Titanic’s grand staircase, or in front of underwater wreckage. The gift shop cashier showed them the choices on a computer screen. The staircase pose came with the option of having ghosts inserted in the photo. Josh meant to ask Rachelle whether those were big sellers.
He waved at Rachelle, who wiggled her fingers in return before swinging out the glass door to Balboa Park. Their shifts had changed ever since she traded with someone else to take her trip to Cabo a couple of weeks before. She worked the cash register at the gift shop next to the exit of the museum exhibit, just past his post by the list of names. After work sometimes, they would go for a beer at the dank but cheap bar by her apartment.
Rachelle didn’t ask a lot of questions. He hadn’t had to hide the fact that he lived at home still, because she didn’t inquire. When she did, if she did, he would tell her he was just saving money, and would move out when he could. She was two years older than him, and graduated from San Diego State that spring. She was taking a year off to apply to graduate school in anthropology. Josh played viola, and studied music at the community college. He also played bass in a band with some buddies from the college’s orchestra. Rachelle once came to their gig at a coffee house. Josh blew the bridge in the first song, he was so distracted by the dip in her tight black tank top, revealing more than the burgundy polo from the museum uniform.
His mom was a professional musician, a cellist. In high school, Josh played chamber music with her. That depressed him though. First, because he was aware that there were things he would rather be doing than playing these pieces with his mom, but he felt too sorry for her to say no. But also because there aren’t many duets for cello and viola. They would play string trios or quartets, meant to include violins, but they would have to just hear the violin parts in their heads.
Josh’s dad left when he was four. His mom didn’t talk about it much, just that he left after an argument and never came home. Through comments his aunt had made, and a diary entry Josh once regretted reading, he gleaned that his father had run off with another woman. Sometimes he sent a card on Josh’s birthday, but not always. He had missed the last three years, which included most recently his twenty-first birthday.
The boarding passes were a gimmick, Josh thought at first during the employee orientation meeting. The visitors-as-passengers thing felt like a cheap emotional ploy to engage people who had paid a lot of money for an exhibit that just plain didn’t have a lot to show. Each passenger was given a card a little smaller than a greeting card that listed the name, class of travel, origin, and other facts about someone who had really ridden on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Every person on the ship the night it went down in April 1912 was represented — over two thousand different cards.
He doubted people would buy into the passenger idea. He assumed they would just toss the ticket and forget about it. But almost everybody held the card in front of them, re-reading it, and checking it against the different tidbits on the posters throughout the hallways. And when they came to the end, they wanted his assistance.
“Can I help you find your passenger?” he asked every couple of minutes, as people stared in silence at the names on the last wall before the exit. There were four columns: First, Second, and Third Class, and Crew. The survivors were listed first in each column, then a line, with those who died underneath.
A tall, twiggy teenager on a family vacation from Oregon stared with earnestness at the wall until she found the name she was holding. She didn’t even acknowledge Josh’s offer to help, her focus was locked so tightly on the lists. He could tell when she found it. Her arms dropped to her sides. She exhaled. “She made it,”, she said, looking around, making eye contact with Josh before continuing to meet her family at the gift shop.
One man in a football jersey and Armani sneakers teared up when he found his passenger below the line. “She was third class. I knew her odds were bad, but she was only 19. My daughter’s 19,” he said. He stayed longer, looking at the names, before lowering his sunglasses onto his nose and leaving.
On his way to his post by the tour’s end, Josh passed the glass cases with stacks of dishes. A photo showed the same dishes, gently spilled out like dominoes along the ocean floor. He passed the oddly well-preserved leather satchel (the curing of the leather protected it, even in the in the two-mile-deep waters), the British currency found inside the satchel, and the pair of men’s boots without laces that were photographed right next to it on the ocean floor. The pictures of the dining rooms, copies of menus, and cabin room reproductions struck him as dated and eerie. First class was too lavish for his taste. His reverse-snob simplicity was drawn to the small but comfortable-looking third class shared rooms. It must have been like a mobile youth hostel, he figured. And the long tables and benches in the dining hall looked more communal, friendlier than the stodgy, dark, ceremonious first class chandelier-riddled dining room.
He felt the coolness blowing off the SUV-sized chunk iceberg installed in a dark corner under dim lights, the last stop before the section of the exhibit dedicated to the details of the collision. A steamy vapor came from the surface, even in the air-conditioned room. A sign explained that salt in the water lowers the freezing point, and the water that night was twenty-eight degrees–four degrees below freezing. Many perished from hypothermia in the water, waiting for the Carpathia to rescue them. The exhibit’s iceberg had dozens of holes, each about an inch in diameter, where passengers had felt the iceberg for themselves, over and over.
Josh’s mom seethed when he told her he had been transferred to the artifact exhibit from the dinosaurs.
“You can’t switch back?” she asked.
“Mom, it’s fine. I was getting tired of that one, telling all the small kids to stay off the T-Rex. Half that skeleton is fake, anyway.”
“But the scientist who discovered the wreckage site didn’t want it disturbed! It should have been left down there.”
“He found the ship, but it’s not his property. The museum has been really respectful,” he said.
She snorted. “Respectful,” she said. “Respect would have been to leave the souls in peace. To work instead on averting future disasters. The fortune they spent insuring the exhibit! They could have used it to fight global warming–build a wind farm with that money.”
“Just don’t say that to my boss, please.”
“This planet is going down, just like the Titanic. People think it’s unsinkable, but there’s an iceberg, or rather a missing one, straight ahead.”
“OK, Mom,” he said.
Brogan, Josh’s friend from high school, worked for a small company that sold scented, brightly-colored, bio-degradable plastic bags for picking up after dogs. Brogan had said his job was chill. It paid two dollars more than minimum wage, included health benefits, and his main responsibility was to maintain the website, track online orders, and manage customers’ accounts. Brogan told him once about a job opening at the company, and said how great it would be to work together. Josh would have liked that in principle, the working together, but he knew himself well enough to be sure he couldn’t embrace employment by a company whose product’s sole purpose was to clean up poop. Even if the product was high-end, and good quality. Even if Katy Perry was a customer. He would dream about dog shit every night. But now he thought, maybe dreams of dog shit wouldn’t be so bad, better perhaps than drowning nightmares.
“Do you get them too?” Josh asked. He lay in bed, his arms under his head. Rachelle’s red hair brushed against the inside of his arm as she repositioned herself. They’d gone out for a beer after work, and back to her apartment afterward. It was the third time they had slept together. He looked over and touched the tattoo of a shark above her hipbone. It was new, since the trip to Mexico.
He had just told her about his dream the night before, sitting with strangers on a bench, holding hands and praying as the water climbed higher, pouring down a ceiling vent, and through the bottom of the locked door. He woke with an enormous gasp.
“No,” she said, leaning on her elbow and propping her head in her hand. “I try not to over-think it.” She scratched her jaw and sighed. “People pay so much for reproductions of blankets, fake china with the Titanic’s logo on it – it’s such a racket. For me, it’s a show, a business, very removed from the actual people who died.” They both stared at the ceiling in silence.
“What if you were a relative of one of those passengers?” Josh asked her. He pinched his thumbnail and watched the color drain from the nail bed. “Wouldn’t it be excessively weird, say, to have several strangers a week impersonating, to a certain extent, a dead great aunt who you never got to meet?”
“I think it would be mostly cool. It would keep her memory alive, right?”
He considered it, and sighed.
“Think about it,” she continued. “My real, dead great-aunt doesn’t get that much consideration. We just have her nicked side table that my mom doesn’t really like, taking up too much space in the dining room. No one walks around, wondering about her life, hoping that she actually survived her heart attack.” She rolled onto her stomach. “They’re all dead anyway,” she said. “Didn’t the last one die a few years ago?”
“Yeah, in 2009. On the ninety-eighth anniversary of the launch of the ship,” he said.
“You take your job seriously,” she said, poking him in the side of his stomach, where he was ticklish.
He flinched and pulled up the sheet in defense. “Maybe I need a new job.”
“I’d miss you.” She smiled as she said it. He looked into her sea-blue eyes, and hoped that she meant it. They both turned on their backs and lay in silence. Then she slid her face toward him, followed by her whole body.
“You live with your mom, don’t you?” His mouth opened to reply, but he had difficulty forming a response.
“I thought so. You never invite me over. I need a roommate. You have a steady job. We get along.” She lifted one side of her mouth in a half-smile and wiped the hair from her eyes. “It’s until I go to school in the fall–I don’t know what will happen then. But I think it would be fun for both of us, and good for you, to get your independence, spread you wings.”
Josh’s chest tingled. A girl, an older woman – a sexy, smart, woman that he was worried he might love was asking him to move in with him. He felt intoxicated, and light enough to float.
“Yes,” he said. She laughed.
That hurt his feelings, but then she said, “No one can say you’re not spontaneous.”
He looked back to her, and rubbed his thumb lightly over her shark tattoo before sliding his other hand behind the small of her back and pulling her on top of him, as she let out a surprised but happy shriek.
Josh and his mom had a standing date on their mutual day off, Wednesdays. He planned to move on the first of the month, in just five days. He had put off for a week telling her about his plans, even though he had already packed two suitcases. It was his chance to arrange the outing, so he chose to take her to the Titanic exhibit. In spite of her initial distaste at his new job there, he felt attached to the exhibit, more so the more time he spent there. Part of him hoped to change her mind about it. And he would be on home turf, as good a place as any to tell her.
The night before in his bed, he alternated between rolling around, trying to move away from the worry that he was letting his mother down, and writhing from nightmares. In the one that woke him up, a version of his recurring one, he was sitting on a bench in the dark, where the bench lifted off the ground when water gushed into the dining hall where he had gathered with other people, and where someone had since locked the doors. The water rose, as it did every night for him, carrying the bench high enough so that his head knocked against the room’s ceiling.
Josh’s mom held the boarding pass between two fingers, not wanting to commit it to her purse, but not throwing it out either. They walked in silence through the beginning of the museum, as Josh rehearsed in his head. His mother stopped at the poster of the eight men in suits, the Titanic’s orchestra. The text explained that they had dressed in their green uniforms and overcoats, and began playing upbeat music, waltzes and polkas, as first class passengers were loaded onto lifeboats. As it later became clear that there were not enough lifeboats, the musicians continued to play. They could be heard from the small vessels below. Survivors reported that one of the last songs the orchestra played before the ship disappeared into the water was a hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.” All eight died.
As she read the poster, her right hand crumpled the card, first curling it into a tube, and then crunching it smaller and smaller.
“Mom?” he said, trying to break her trance in front of the poster.
She turned to him, fanning herself with her free hand.
“Why did you take me here?” she asked. “It’s so sad. So many souls lost. Those poor musicians…”
He wondered whether having the conversation at his place of employment was a good idea. He didn’t want to make a scene, but he took a deep breath and began anyway.
“A friend of mine from work, Rachelle, she needs a roommate. It would help her out, and I have enough money saved; I was thinking of moving in with her.”
His mother smiled to herself and pulled her paisley scarf down so it was even, and tight against the back of her neck.
“That’s wonderful, Josh. I’m glad you found a place that you like.”
He waited, assuming that more of a reaction would come. When none did, he asked, “You’re not upset?” touching her elbow. She took a step away from him.
“Why would I be upset?” she asked. He looked for her shoulders to pull back in distaste, or the sides of her mouth to draw down. But he saw none of it – anger, disappointment – only a relaxed expression that confused him.
“Just don’t make any little Joshes until you are married,” she said, looking straight at him. This was his mother’s version of a sex talk, he thought–direct, and vaguely accusatory. “You are interested in this girl, I imagine? Are you dating?”
“It’s complicated,” he said. “She leaves for graduate school in a few months.”
She nodded. “Birth control is a good invention–don’t take it for granted. It wasn’t always so easy.”
“And in your day? Do you regret marrying my father?” he asked.
She stopped walking in front of the iceberg, with all the finger holes dotting it.
“Your father was alluring; we were young. You have his good looks,” she said. He felt she had searched to find something nice to say to stop from saying something negative.
“He was a bad person, leaving you and me like that.”
“It was a difficult time,” she said. “But without him, I wouldn’t have you, and that, I couldn’t bear.”
He crossed his arms. His mother seemed different to him. All his life, he had assumed he knew what she was thinking, but his confidence in that evaporated.
“Why don’t you go on dates?” he asked her. “Isn’t there anyone in the orchestra who asks you out? How about Mr. Zimmer at temple?”
“Ira and I have met for coffee quite a few times,” she said quietly, sticking her finger in one of the already established holes in the ice.
“You have?” He scratched his head. He tried to picture his mother sitting across from a man her age, leaning into the table and flirting. Then he tried not to picture it, accepting that, whatever was going on with Mr. Zimmer, Ira, she was content.
“I will just be living across town,” he said. “Can we still meet Wednesdays for dinner?”
She pinched her son’s cheek, which she hadn’t done in at least a decade. “You bet,” she said. They were one room away from the end of the exhibit. “Oh! I have to run,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “Coffee with Ira. I’ll see you later at home.”
She turned and jogged out the door, and he tilted his head, silently blinking. They had ridden together, and she didn’t mention anything before then about not driving home with him. He stood there alone, just a few paces from his post at work. As his mother’s figure disappeared in the direction of the bus stop, her head bowed, he saw her wipe at her face with her scarf. He worried that she wouldn’t see where she was going and might trip, but he let her go without following. His boarding pass stuck out of his front pocket. He pulled it out, straightening the edges, and read the entry for the first time.
A male child. Third class. He scanned the column of passengers from the bottom up. When he got through the long group of names below the line, his eyes widened. Then he found him, a survivor. He smiled and surprised himself with the force of his sigh. He folded the card in two and put it in his wallet before continuing to the gift shop.