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Old Vemish Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

For forty years, Martin Vemish has maintained his paint and wallpaper store on Long Island, New York, surviving the Depression and the postwar attempt by an outlet of Macy’s Department Store to put him out of business. He is a simple man, a fighter, and he has never taken a vacation. Eventually, his son Herbert, an unsuccessful entrepreneur, becomes his partner and prevails on him and Martin’s wife, Sara, to take a Caribbean cruise.

The ship on which they sail is the SS Solar, and its tour director is Clifton Booth, who is dedicated to managing the daily routine of the elderly passengers on board the ship.

The trouble starts shortly after the ship sails from New York, when Booth assembles the passengers to tell them what his schedule for them is, as well as to warn them against deviating from it. When Booth finds out from one of his assistants that the Vemishes have not attended the meeting, he confronts them. The Vemishes are sunning themselves on deck, and Martin Vemish, who is always smoking a cigar, and who did not like going on the cruise in the first place, tells Booth to leave him and his wife alone, that they will try to enjoy themselves on their own terms, not Booth’s.

From this point on, Booth finds himself at war with the Vemishes, and as the story progresses, his composure and power wither. Booth’s opinion is that the passengers in his care are not able to fend for themselves, that they should take it easy. He treats them, in effect, like children. Martin Vemish, however, will have none of it. He swims loudly in the pool while the other passengers lounge around it like convalescents, a bit unnerved by Vemish’s antics—all except Bradford Bates, an elderly passenger, a retired accountant, who is excited by what Vemish is doing and by the appearance of Puerto Rico, the ship’s first landfall. Bates’s wife, Charlotte, gaunt and domineering, opposes this excitement in her husband and complains about Vemish’s presence in the pool to him. It is clear that she has taken a violent dislike to Vemish.

The Vemishes are the last to return from the passengers’ jaunt in Puerto Rico. They have gone off on their own, and Martin Vemish brings back a box of Cuban cigars, which Booth informs him he will not be allowed to take home after the cruise. When the ship docks in St. Thomas, the Vemishes are so late in returning that the ship’s departure is delayed. Captain Harley, an abrupt man, is angry at Booth for this, and when Vemish explains to Booth that his delay was caused by his having saved a boy from drowning on the island, Booth is furious and frustrated.

Later that night, Bradford Bates escapes from his wife and introduces himself to the Vemishes in one of the ship’s lounges. He is delighted to be treated to Vemish’s tirade, with many of the passengers listening in, against the orgy of junk-buying in which the tourists have indulged, paying more than they would have paid for the same items in a New York department store. Charlotte Bates takes her husband in tow, and Clifton Booth tells Vemish that he is not allowed to smoke in the lounge, at which point Sara Vemish forces Booth to leave.

The next morning, the battle continues and Booth’s power is further eroded. The sweepstakes deck games that Booth has organized turn into a shambles from his point of view when Vemish not only enters them but also plays with a vigor and determination that exhaust but galvanize the passengers and horrify Booth. Once again Bradford Bates is delighted, and at the moment when Booth goes after Vemish to tell him he must leave the ship, Bates claps and cheers for Vemish, and Booth vomits over the side.

Vemish is beginning to have an effect on the other passengers, too, despite Booth’s carefully planned manipulation of them. The ship docks in Barbados, but the passengers will not be herded onshore as a group. They go in small groups and, as a representative of the...

(The entire section is 1,066 words.)