MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“This is Terry Banner asking you to remember that you heard it here first.”
The red light went off, telling Banner with certainty that he was no longer on the air. He took out his earpiece, removed his microphone, opened his shirt collar, and removed his tie. He hated ties; if the inventor of the tie were still alive, Banner would wish him a miserable death. Strangulation would represent a delicious irony.
“Way to go, Terry. You really nailed it tonight.”
Banner accepted the compliment from the cameraman with a nod and a brief “Thanks.” The truth was that he had no idea if he had nailed it or not; the cameraman said some version of the same thing after every broadcast. The other truth was that by a half hour after the time he would get to the bar, he’d forget what it was that he had talked about.
Banner was the opinion reporter for a local Scranton, Pennsylvania, station, and each night’s opinion was basically a recitation of some series of events that he claimed should leave viewers feeling outraged. Since people never tired of feeling outraged, Banner was the closest thing Scranton had to a media star.
Banner’s career had already taken an unusual path. He started out at a small Toledo station, then got noticed by a New York news executive visiting his grandmother in a Toledo suburb. The next thing he knew he was working for Channel 5 in New York.
That’s where he started his daily outrages spiel, and he thought he was doing pretty well. Then one day the target of his outrage was the local teachers’ union, which turned out to be an unfortunate choice, since the incoming head of the news division turned out to have a sister who was the president of that same union. Banner was gone soon after.
Actually, Banner didn’t realize that his ill-fated choice of targets was only a secondary reason for his firing. What was really going on was that the station had information that Banner was involved in unsavory and possibly illegal activities in his life away from the studio. The station preferred to keep that quiet and let people assume that it was the station manager’s anger and defense of his sister that led to Banner’s termination.
The next thing Banner knew he was back in Scranton. And even though no one would ever accuse him of being an upbeat person, he soon learned that exile wasn’t so bad. He became a Scranton celebrity and found out that he liked being the big fish in the small pond.
He brought his outrage shtick with him, and people all over the Scranton area were soon tuning in to find out what they should be pissed off about. So even though when he first left New York he was determined to get back, pretty soon he wasn’t thinking about that at all. The cost of living was much less, the women were just as nice and liked him far more than New York women did, and the alcohol went down just the same.
There was another aspect of life in Scranton that represented a pleasant surprise for Banner. In the New York area, he had developed a lucrative sideline of selling opioids. A contact had been easy to make, and quite a few people, including some colleagues, were eager buyers.
It didn’t take long to set up a similar operation in Scranton; he didn’t even have to change suppliers. He believed he was smart enough to stay under any law enforcement radar, and if the police had noticed him, they hadn’t come forward. Before long Banner’s unofficial career was earning him more than his on-air work.
On that particular night Banner went to his favorite bar, Shanahan’s, in downtown Scranton. For weeks he’d sat in the same seat at the right end of the bar, but then started to feel like Norm from Cheers, so he moved to a small table in the far corner. More than occasionally Banner wound up leaving with a female patron, but no such luck on that night.
He arrived at seven o’clock and left at nine forty-five. Towns in this part of Pennsylvania generally closed up early, at least by New York standards, and Scranton was no exception. His blood alcohol level was certainly over the legal limit, and there was never a time that he wouldn’t have at least traces of drugs in his body, but he never worried about that. He was conscious of his impairment and drove carefully, and it’s not like there was ever traffic at that hour.
Banner’s drive home was without incident, and twenty minutes after he left the bar he pulled into his garage. Eighteen seconds after that the .38-caliber bullet entered the back of his head, killing him instantly.
My first cruise is almost over.
Truth be told, I didn’t want to do this. I was more than willing to go through life cruise-less. But Laurie and Ricky wanted to go on one, so as we often do, we had a family vote. It would not have taken Gallup to predict that the final tabulation would be two votes in favor of going, and one opposed. I asked for the jury to be polled, but that didn’t change the final count.
We boarded one week ago tomorrow. The first thing we did was go to our cabin, which is a two-bedroom suite. The two bedrooms plus the living room combined are the size of a large coffee table. But it would be fine, Laurie assured me, because we would rarely be in the room. There was too much fun to be had on the ship, and I, Andy Carpenter, am nothing if not fun loving.
Almost immediately we were directed to find our life jackets and make it to our assigned stations, which were listed on the door. I’m not a big fan of needing life jackets because by definition they imply danger to life. That’s why, for example, we don’t keep life jackets in our den at home.
I could barely figure out the various straps to get mine on, so Ricky helped me. And of course I was under no stress during this drill; the chance that I would be able to manage it while on the deck of a sinking ship is infinitesimal.
We did as instructed and made it to our station. Once there we stood with maybe two hundred other life-jacketed passengers and responded when our names were called. One of the crew assured us that if a passenger was not there to answer to his or her name, another crew member would be sent to their stateroom to get them. This was a mandatory drill.
After the roll call, we were told that in an emergency we were to do what we had just practiced: grab our life jackets and come to these stations. Lifeboats would then be lowered automatically from high up on the ship down to us, and we would get in. The plan, I suppose, was to then happily row away to the sounds of Celine Dion coming from the sinking ship’s audio system.
Almost immediately I recognized a problem. I think I read somewhere that some of the Titanic lifeboats never even got used, and they didn’t have to come down on elevators. They were just sitting there on the side of the ship. So in our case, the ship would be sinking rapidly, but all the lifeboat elevators would work perfectly? Unlikely at best.
I was thinking maybe two-thirds of them would make it down. Doing the math, that meant that one-third wouldn’t, leaving a lot of people floating around, boatless. I do not envision my final resting place to be at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by rusting buffet tables.
It wasn’t mentioned, but my guess was that the crew still clung to the antiquated notion that women and children have priority. That is so yesterday.
I’m fine with Laurie and Ricky getting special status, but it shouldn’t be a blanket policy. It represents sexism and ageism; two isms that I am firmly opposed to. Sinkism and drownism are two more.
So I could see I was going to be left having to fend for myself against the other men on board. Some of them were really old, so I figured I could outrun or even outfight them. But others looked in good shape, so I’d have to outthink them. I hadn’t come up with a strategy, but putting on one of Laurie’s dresses and lipstick was a possibility.
Laurie could tell that I wasn’t approaching this with the right attitude, so she starting telling me about the glorious diversions the ship offered: “Andy, there are an amazing amount of things to do. There are restaurants, bars, a bowling alley, bingo games, shows, movies, a casino, arcades, a library, computers, amusement rides, swimming pools, and, best of all, a close-up view of the ocean.”
“That’s great,” I said. “But you know what else has all of those things? New Jersey. And you can’t slip and fall off New Jersey. You can stand on a street corner in Paterson for ten years and never get seasick or need a lifeboat.”
The truth is that the week has been relaxing and bearable. We’ve made stops at five Caribbean islands. They were all exactly the same; I’m pretty sure that we really went to the same island five times. They just called it by different names, and they cleverly changed the T-shirts in the stores, but I saw through the ruse.
Thanksgiving was last week, but the ship is in Christmas mode. Decorations are everywhere, Santas are there to “Ho, ho, ho” at every kid that walks by, and Christmas music is piped throughout.
I can usually stand Christmas music for about an hour, and then I want to scream when it’s played. Of course, Laurie thinks the Christmas season lasts for four months, so I’ve been hearing it since Halloween. It doesn’t take me long to get sick of Bing Crosby telling me that Santa knows when I’ve been sleeping and when I’m awake.
The island shops were also decorated for Christmas, which seemed completely incongruous. It felt like 145 degrees outside, and all the windows were decorated with fake snow, candy canes, and tinsel.
Time on the ship itself has been reasonably enjoyable; Ricky has had plenty to do, while Laurie and I have been resting and reading. We’ve also been doing our fair share of drinking, though it’s embarrassing that every drink I order comes with a little umbrella in it.
Laurie and Ricky wanted to play bingo yesterday. I agreed because I am an agreeable guy, but I had one condition: if I won, either she or Ricky had to be the one to yell “Bingo!” I won the first game, and Ricky, who does not share my fear of humiliation, happily screamed it out.
We did have one disaster happen. On Sunday, I went into the bar area to watch pro football, but the only sports station that the ship gets is ESPN. There are no afternoon football games on ESPN, so instead I watched bass fishing, just so I could see the updated NFL scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen. A guy next to me at the bar tried to engage me in bass-fishing talk. It was not my finest moment.
Right now we’re close to pulling into port on the West Side of Manhattan, so I turn on my cell phone, and I see that I have six messages, all from Willie Miller, and all in the last four hours.
Each message is almost identical: “Andy, it’s Willie. Tara and Sebastian are good, but I need to talk to you about something else. It’s important. But Tara and Sebastian are really good.”
Tara is my golden retriever, best friend, and greatest living creature on the face of the earth, or any other planet known or still to be discovered. Sebastian is our basset hound, also a great dog, but, candidly, not in Tara’s class. There is nothing and no one else in Tara’s class.
I’m a defense attorney, and Willie is my friend and former client. He and his wife, Sondra, are my partners in the Tara Foundation, our dog-rescue operation. They are also taking care of Tara and Sebastian while we are away, and Willie is smart enough to realize that if he left an urgent message without assuring me of their good health, I would freak out.
Copyright © 2020 by Tara Productions, Inc.