“Someone picking you up?”
Ellen looked up. She was surrounded by a sea of empty seats. She’d noticed the noise of the cleaning machine had stopped. But hadn’t thought beyond that. Now she glanced at the floor. It was so shiny she had to look away. A man wearing a khaki shirt and the same color pants stood in front of her, holding the handles of his waxing machine. Ellen noticed that his moustache was gray, but not his hair. She took a breath, then looked into his eyes. They seemed blank, and safe.
“That’s a good job,” said Ellen. “Took you a long time.”
“You’ve been here a long time,” he said. “Like I said, ‘Someone picking you up?’”
Ellen looked at his shirt, and the blue stitching on the pocket: Tom, Training Management Officer. She turned her head and looked behind her. The shine on the floor made her squint. “Tom,” she said, “I’ve never seen a floor that clean. You know what my mother would say? My mother would say: ‘That floor is clean enough to eat off.’ If we ordered dinner, Tom, from any of Block Island’s famous restaurants, and they delivered it here, we could have a picnic right here. Better than a picnic, we could put the food right on the floor, and then eat it using our fingers, even the gravy, just scoop it up alongside those mashed potatoes my mother really loves. She loves mashed potatoes, Tom. Do you like mashed potatoes?”
“Sometimes,” said Tom. “Should I call someone? You want me to make a call for you? You know it’s late, and we’re shutting down for the night. Sunday night, you must have a place to be.”
“I do, Tom,” said Ellen. “My place is here. With your shiny waxy floor and your incandescent lights and these wonderfully colored seats. I just love the way the orange sets off the yellow and the beige panels kind of hold everything together. Were you involved in these design decisions, Tom? Seems to me that someone as multi-talented as you, someone who is a, what is it? a Training Management Officer—or is it the Training Management Officer—shouldn’t have to be waxing the floor late on a Sunday afternoon.”
“Chris is off today. His brother’s boy Charles Frederick was getting baptized, so he needed to be there.”
He looked down at the girl, whose hands were now on either side of her, gripping the seat as if she were afraid she might either explode or fly away. “Whatever it is,” he said, “it’s going to be all right.”
She looked up at him, and he watched her grip get tighter.
“People say that all the time,” she said. “And I guess they mean it. It’s just that it’s not true.”
As he smiled a little, Ellen noticed tiny flecks of saliva at the corners of his mouth. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Ellen,” she said immediately, smiling back at him. First names were easy.
“Ellen what?” he asked.
“That would be telling,” she said.
“Well,” he said, “one way or another, Ellen whoeveryouare, we’re both going to have to leave this here boat. And I’d prefer that, you know, after I stow this here buffer, you and me we just walk down the gangplank together. Cause we’re going to shut her down for the night, lights and heat and all, and there’s no regulation in the world says you can stay on board.”
“I know,” said Ellen. “I take the ferry all the time. I know the rules.”
“So why are you here?”
“To make them wait,” she said.
“Who?” he said.
“Them,” she said.
Tom moved away to look out the port-side windows at the dock.
“Don’t bother,” she said. “It’s the gray Mercedes. He’s used to it.”
“He?” he said.
“Gordon,” she said. “My stepfather. He uses the time to read. He makes a big deal of closing whatever book he’s reading, and then looking at me and saying ’35 pages,’ or whatever. One time it was ’56 pages.’ That was last November. I almost rode back to Point Judith. Would have served him right.”
“Seems a little rude to me,” said Tom.
Ellen looked at him, the beige man with the small smile and the blank eyes.
“Rude is as rude does, Tom. If I told you that when I got home my mother was going to beat me across the back of my legs with a riding crop, because I got a B in algebra even though the rest were all A’s, would you believe me?”
Tom gripped the two handles of his machine more tightly, but said nothing.
“Or what if I told you my stepfather had been my secret lover for the last six months, and that he waits for me so patiently in the car because he knows that by waiting he will get open-mouthed kisses and be able to open my blouse and put his hands on my young breasts. Would you believe me then?”
Tom took a step back.
“Or… what if I told you that when I get in the car tonight, where my stepfather is probably right now finishing “David Copperfield” because he’s on a Dickens kick, that I was going to tell him how this man on the ferry had a waxing machine, but he shut it off and snuck up on me while I was trying to get ready to leave, and he put his hand up my skirt and made me promise not to tell or he would throw me overboard the next time he saw me on the ferry?”
Tom said, “Don’t do this, this whatever it is you’re thinking, whatever you’re doing, just stop, I’m married, I’ve got a daughter, two grand kids, I never said anything…”
Ellen stood, turned, and looked at him.
“Your khaki uniform matches the beige in those panels,” she said. “Was that part of the plan? The overall scheme of things? You can tell me all about it another time. I’m sure we’ll meet again. I’m always back and forth on the ferry.”