“Has anyone seen Jo Ann?” the tour guide asks the group.
“Last I saw her,” one of the ladies says, “she was playing a harpsichord in the street.”
This is one of my favorite stories about my friend Jo Ann. She’d been on a guided tour in a small Italian town and wandered off from the group, taken an enticing road up a hill and in the process of exploring had passed a harpsichord outside of a shop with no one around. So she’d doubled back, sat down and started playing. She might have been found by her group later seated at a table with three Italians (one of whom was the harpsichord owner) drinking red wine.
She’d taken up scuba diving in her 60s and goes on yearly trips to dive. And, now in her 70s, she still goes skiing in the Rocky Mountains with a band of skiers who call themselves the Silver Streaks. I met her at my Colorado writers’ group and we’d get together occasionally for a glass of wine and conversation. She’s impetuous, outspoken and completely wonderful.
When I’d call her every couple of months from Peru she’d always ask me, “When are you coming home?”
“I don’t know,” I’d say. Wistful. Suddenly homesick for the mountains.
But she understood the alluring call of adventure. She’d listened to it, answered it. She still does. She recently got married, packed her things and her cat Lou, and moved from Colorado Springs to Pennsylvania.
I sent her an email from Wilmington, North Carolina wishing her mazel tov and letting her know what I was up to, where I was, and the basics of my tentative itinerary.
She writes me back asking how long I’ll be in Philadelphia. She and her husband live less than an hour away and, she writes, if I have time she’d love to see me.
I’m just back from my day outside with the chief engineer and I don’t know how much longer we’ll be in port. I call her anyways. Once we’re past the catching up and the joy of hearing each other’s voices we get down to business.
“Can we get together with you tomorrow?” she asks. “Donald is down for it.” I hear his voice in the background and it sounds agreeable.
“I’m not actually sure when we’re leaving. Let me go find someone to ask and I’ll call you back and let you know if I’m allowed to leave the ship tomorrow.”
I skip down the stairs and go to the ship’s office. The supercargo officer is laughing at something on his computer screen. He removes his headphones when he catches sight of me.
“Sorry to interrupt you,” I say.
“It’s just a movie,” he says, not convincing me that I’m more important than the show. “This is what I do most of the time.”
“Do you, by chance, know when we’re leaving port?”
“Cargo should be all loaded by around sixteen hundred tomorrow,” he says.
“So I should be able to go ashore again?”
“You’d have to ask one of the other guys, but I know my flight is leaving out of here at seven o’clock.” The supercargo officers are in charge of getting the cargo loaded and unloaded in the different ports. They don’t travel with the ships. And apparently this one isn’t even from town. He actually came in from Houston and he’s ready to get back home.
I thank the supercargo and let him get back to his movie. As if on cue, the third officer walks in.
“Hey,” I say to Dan.
“Hello,” he replies.
We exchange stories about outside and then I ask him if I’d be able to go outside again the next day.
“That should be fine,” he says.
“So long as I’m back by maybe noon?” I ask. I fill him in on the time table the supercargo officer had just given me.
“That should be fine.”
“Thanks!” I say, and I dart back upstairs.
Jo Ann and I arrange for them to come get me the next morning for a late breakfast or early lunch. “What are we waiting for?!” she says. I’m not real concerned that they’ll have any problems coming directly to the port since Philadelphia is so lax about security.
In the morning I stop by the ship’s office on my way out.
“Morning,” I say. I turn my attention to the chief officer. “If I go outside, what time do I need to be back by?”
“Work should be done by four o’clock. So be back before then,” he says. He looks up at me. “Four o’clock PM. Not in the morning.”
“Got it,” I say.
“Must be nice to go outside whenever you want,” the chief engineer says.
The other guys chuckle, start to join in the teasing.
“If you pay the company they’ll let you go outside whenever you want too,” the chief officer says. There’s a hint of a smile on his lips.
“Yeah,” I tell them all. “It does come with a price. See you guys later. I’ll be back by one or two,” I tell the chief. And then I’m out.
“They let you all the way in!” I say. They’re parked in the small lot to the left of the guard shack.
“They were very helpful,” Jo Ann says.
“How are you? Did you have trouble finding it? Was it a long trip?” The questions spill out like bilge.
“So nice to meet you!”
We’ve both heard of each other. We smile like co-conspirators.
They take me out for an early lunch. Since it’s not yet eleven
we have to drive around until the Applebee’s opens. They’re precious together. Teasing. In love. Newlyweds.
They ask questions about the ship. About sailing. Tell me to be sure to have plenty of motion sickness medication and Pepto Bismol. Advise me on places I must see. Paint images of cities and hillsides and waterways in vivid verbal color. Tell me of past travels and of ones to come. They’re living in motion the way I am.
“I’m very jealous of what you’re doing,” Jo Ann says, “but I’m also happy to be where I am now.”
It’s a good place to be.
And I’ve got a long way to go before I have half the stories that she does.
After lunch we still have time before I need to head back. I ask them if they wouldn’t mind taking me by Target so I can get a few things I’ve decided I need. Donald stays in the car. “You ladies take as long as you need,” he tells us. He’s got classical music on and a book to read.
Inside the store, Jo Ann and I split up. “I’m going to go see if they have some shelves that might work at the house,” she says. “Don’t check out without me.”
After a while she joins me where I am, browsing, slowly, not wanting stuff that won’t be consumed before the end of my voyage, wondering if I really need anything here at all. She picks out some anti-motion sickness medication and a box of Pepto Bismol for me. When it’s time to check out, she pays.
“Thank you,” I say. “You didn’t have to… I know you didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” Jo Ann says. “It’s nice to be able to. I couldn’t do this before and now I can.”
Times like this I wish I were more flagrantly expressive. A quick hug-squeeze. A kiss on the cheek. I try to put those into my words. We walk side by side across the parking lot.
Don starts the car back up. We buckle in.
“It’s still early,” Jo Ann says. So we go shop for a refrigerator. We find a discount appliance warehouse where the tough guy who helps us calls me and Jo Ann “sweetheart” with frequency and a Jersey sounding accent. He doesn’t call Don anything. We look, but we don’t buy.
Then they drive me back to the dock.
“I’m so glad you guys had time and wanted to do this,” I say. “This has been really fun.”
I hug Jo Ann goodbye. Don gives me a kiss on the cheek. I watch them drive away.
Today might not have been as eventful for Jo Ann as playing a harpsichord in a small Italian town was, though maybe it is something to say, “A friend of mine from Colorado came by ship into the Philadelphia port so we went out for lunch and shopped for refrigerators.” Because that’s what friends do.