At 15 minutes to 4:00 on Sunday, I arise from a sleepless night to the sound of Stan’s funereal voice, “Susan. It is time to get up.” Stan, already dressed in navy trousers and sweater, shuffles off for breakfast. He returns at 4:00, and we wrestle luggage outside our cabin for the porters. I ask Stan if he inquired about our airport cab. Not one to ponder the immediate future, he had not. He bounds back up the steps with legs that don’t seem to bend at the knee. I throw on a semi-clean tee shirt, jeans, and raincoat.
In the black and drizzly morning, we clamber over the metal walkway bridging the Douro River to the shore. The ship’s lights dance on the inky water. A pot-bellied driver waits, his car motor humming. I wearily climb in the back of the cab. As the taxi maneuvers through the wet streets, I notice a rosary dangling from the cab’s rearview window. An omen? I wonder. We arrive at the airport at 4:30. The driver swivels around in his seat and in a heavy accent announces, “Twenty euros, por favor.”
Stan, in his own mid-Western accent, explains that the ship is to pay for the ride and chirps to the cabbie, “Call the ship.” The man gibber-jabbers angrily, obviously thinking we are American lowlifes. I stay quiet, enfolded in a morning fog. Stan throws a credit card at the man. The card reader promptly belches it out again. Stan fishes another credit card out of his wallet, but with the same result. I keep my Visa stowed away.
The argument drones on. Stan, a 72-year-old reedy former LAPD cop, darkly threatens to alert the policíal –one of the few Spanish words he knows –except for the phrase, “Drop your weapon and put your hands in the air.” The threat to call the law seems to work, and both men exit the taxi, slamming doors. I superglue myself to the cab’s backseat, afraid that Stan will push the driver’s taximeter too far and the man will speed away with my valuables in the trunk. My frog matador tee shirt for my daughter is priceless. To me, anyway.
When I hear the welcome sound of the car trunk click open and the thunk of our suitcases hitting the pavement, I untangle myself out of the backseat, collect my battered blue suitcase, and quietly and quickly scurry through the automatic doors of the airport like a squirrel with its eye on a newly fallen acorn. I’ll let the men sort it out. I have a plane to catch.
Soon Stan finds me, and breathlessly says a cruise employee showed up and handled the cab driver. We ride an escalator down and settle ourselves on metal chairs to wait for our gate to open and the plane to start boarding. And we wait. Time leaks away like water in a clogged-up sink, and we don’t board. Ten minutes before we are scheduled to fly out of Portugal to Madrid, people around me start gathering their belongings and shaking their heads. I snare a young man who tells me, “Sim, our flight has been cancelled. Pilot’s strike.”
I spy a senora next door at Gate 6 in a lime coat, high heels and swinging black ponytail looking official. Like refugees fleeing Thailand, we hightail over to Gate 6. She says collect our luggage and come to the third floor. By the time we get to the third floor, it is Portuguese Bombay.
On the way to the restroom an hour later, I find myself trailing behind the Senora in Charge. I rush up to her, panting and wheedling. “Will I be able to reach the United States any time today?” A curt reply to bring my bags and follow her. I race off for Stan. The woman walks us over to a counter where a man in his early twenties sits at a computer. After tapping some keys, he says pleasantly that we cannot get a flight out to Madrid until tomorrow morning at 8:10 AM. We yelp, and look suitably deranged – Stan, wispy white hair saluting the air and face screwed up in a scowl, and me, salmon raincoat and frizzy red hair, whiny and outraged. The startled young man considers other options to get rid of us, and allows we MIGHT go by train to Lisbon’s airport and fly to Madrid today.
I explain to Stan what the young man says, since Stan can only pick up the sound of a speeding train two feet away. Not an option for him. He is antsy to go home to eat breakfast at the Outback Steak House and ride his lawn mower. And neither of us is convinced that we won’t have our flight cancelled again in the morning, so we race downstairs to catch the next metro.
We huddle inside a metro for 40 minutes. On the train — wallpapered with mildewed people — Stan and I scrunch up in two adjoining train cars. We are to get off at the Campanhã station. Although limp as an old rag, hungry, and drowsy, I must stay alert. Someone must. The effervescent Stan nods off, his head buried in the neck of his navy jacket like a turtle, just when the train announcer, over a crackling intercom, intones our stop. At my pantomimed request, three young women poke Stan and gesture to the electronic strip circling the ceiling spelling “Campanhã.”
The train station is outside through a courtyard. Rain beats a staccato on the breezeway and a damp chill makes my toes curl. I pry my suitcase open and drag out my new lambs wool sweater from Barca D’Alva and my Walmart umbrella. Cobblestones crunch under our feet. “Get to Lisbon, get to Lisbon,” they say.
Stan and I drag on to the train, bone-tired and swimmy-headed. As we steam south to Portugal’s capital in backward economy seats, the trains’ green shutters flap in the whoosh while a watery gray landscape flies by. After three hours of monotonous train whiz-bys, we disembark to find hundreds of expensive-looking shops and animated dark-haired teenagers surrounding us. Bewildered until our mental fogs lift, we finally realize that we are not at the airport on our way to a concourse, but stranded in a shopping mall. It is a terminal condition.
Some young Spaniards tell us we need to ride Bus 44 to get to Terminal 1. They wave us off in an easterly direction where the bus ostensibly shows up from time to time. I don’t want to wait around in the rain for Bus 44, so suggest to Stan that we hail a cab. His whiskery face reveals a miserly and wizened money-clutching soul, but he reluctantly agrees. Then — like the devil’s pitchfork gouged him– he turns bitter when the cabbie announces a whopping fare of 4 euros.
At Terminal 1’s Delta desk, a confused agent asks why we are in Lisbon instead of taking our TAP flight in the morning to Madrid. Stan explains in his sepulcher tone what happened to us and that we hope to get out of Portugal before we are both in hospice.
We get new boarding passes. In the security line, Stan, like an ancient stallion, grabs his suitcase, and sprints off to find our gate. I lift his boarding pass out of a tub resting on the conveyor belt and follow. We get to Atlanta the next evening.
C. Susan Evans is a free lance writer and English instructor at a community college in the Smoky Mountains. She is published in Deep South Magazine, Ornery Quarterly Magazine. Six Hens Literary Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor. She doesn’t intend to return to Portugal.