Game Theory

She sat on a bench in the Public Gardens, legs tucked beneath her. It was too cold for the swan boats, so tourists weren’t crowding around with their squawking children to ride the ridiculous boats in a circle around the water. As if the Boston experience wasn’t complete without sitting in a crowded boat with a bunch of loud, sticky children and fat, stinking adults.

 

Bobby worked a swan boat last summer, and he used to mimic the tourists. “’Ooh, Martha, get a picture of little Tyler waving,’” he’d say. “’Peter, don’t cry, and Mommy will get you another ice cream.’” He made fun of them, but somehow never sounded mean. She didn’t know how he managed to pull off that trick. “They’re just people,” he’d say. “Didn’t your folks ever take you to parks?”

 

She’d get a flash of her mother in her red capris and tight tee shirts and her father in his jeans with his stomach jutting over the top and his collection of horrid Hawaiian shirts. Her mother’s hair was almost white at the ends, and it darkened to black at the roots. Her father had a tattoo of a snake and a sword on his bicep. They never went anywhere, but she did. In her mind. She told Bobby that.

He said she was like him: a traveler without papers. She wasn’t sure what he meant, but it sounded interesting.

When she wasn’t working, she liked to sit on the grass at the Public Gardens and watch him. He looked golden in the sun.

Bobby would smile and give his “Welcome to Boston” spiel to the tourists and act so polite with his “Yes, ma’ams and no sirs, and I’d be glad to recommend a good, cheap restaurant.”

 

Often a big spender would even slip him a dollar or two. “Thanks, he’d say. I’m working my way through, MIT.” Sometimes it was Tufts or BU or Northeastern–not Harvard because he said that turned people off.

 

Most days she worked at Great Rocks in Cambridge, selling overpriced, polished stone jewelry and knick knacks to hipsters. It was easy work, and she could fake the talk. She had cultivated a faint British accent. When people asked her where she was from, she always smiled and said, “All over, really.” She had gotten invited to a lot of parties that way.

Bobby was the only one who saw through her act, but he liked it, probably because they were two of a kind. He moved in with her that first night when they met at an almost-end-of-the-year MIT frat party. Chi Piss-Off or Delta Up-Yours. It was easy to crash those parties. You just had to show up if you were a girl, and she had a fake BU ID. Bobby didn’t need to crash. He was the man who handed out party favors in little cello bags to those with the means to afford them.

“Tell me your thoughts about game theory,” he said with that big white smile.

“I’ll tell you mind if you tell me yours.” She could always throw off trite lines.

“I don’t know much about game theory, but I know a player when I see her.”                       

They left the party and walked down Bay State Road. It had been one of those cool spring nights, and he offered her his jacket. He seemed so gallant. No guy ever treated her like Bobby. She told him things she hadn’t told anyone. She said she was only a year short of her own degree when she left Philadelphia and wanted to see the world, but she only had enough money to get to Boston. It was cheaper than New York and farther from her parents. She felt a longing to do something, but didn’t know what. It was like she was tied by some invisible tether and needed to break free.

 

He said he was a student of life, and they’d break free together.

She so wanted to believe in him. But now she understood happiness was just a short, dazzling flight until you crashed back into the dirt.

She should have known that Bobby was a golden bird, and she was a crow.

 

That summer her boss promoted her to store manager and offered her the apartment over the shop at reduced rent. “It’s a little noisy with all the college kids, but the neighborhood’s great. You’re a hard worker. You got a future.”

 

She put down her payment and gave notice to her current landlord, who didn’t care as long as he got his last month’s rent check. She figured she’d surprise Bobby. They had a good life. She paid rent; he paid for food and extras. She just had to find the right moment because she didn’t want him to think she was being too pushy, but for the first time in her life she felt content. He was the missing part of her. He gave her a necklace he said he made in an art class. It was two entwined brass circles on a simple chain. “It’s not much,” he said, “but I almost burned off my fingers making it. I wanted to give it to someone I really cared for.” She swore never to take it off, even though somewhere in her mind it registered that he had no burn scars.

 

She didn’t question his love until she saw his cell phone. It was an accident. He was in the shower, and she pushed a button and saw another golden bird, a fiancé named Bryn. She wished she hadn’t looked, but it was like trying to unspill ink. The blot was there.

 

Did he know? Maybe he wanted her to see. She told herself it didn’t matter, that he really loved her, but she felt the lie mocking her when they lay together at night. She wanted to talk to him about the golden bird and the new apartment, but she didn’t. She couldn’t get the words out. Sometimes when he went out, she wondered if he’d call her from the airport and tell her he wasn’t coming back, and she’d touch his things: his clothes, his grungy backpack, trying to hold on to him.

 

Two weeks before they were supposed to move he didn’t come home.

 

Three days later, it hit the news. “Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III was identified as the shooting victim in Thursday nights’ East Cambridge robbery-homicide. He was shot at point blank range with a .9 mm semi-automatic, and the police are asking for your help in identifying the killer.” They showed his Yale University graduation picture because he’d been shot in the head three times. The police said it looked like a drug-related killing. They found some cello bags of cocaine under the body.

There were no witnesses, and no one connected Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III to the girl who lived in the tiny South Boston apartment on the edge of respectability.

She wasn’t sure what was worse: that he never told her who he was, or that he was planning to leave her at the end of the summer. His parents flew his body back home to Colorado for a private burial. The police never did find a suspect; all they got was a bunch of half-assed descriptions of a thin black male in a baggy tracksuit. She heard they picked up a couple of guys just to keep the parents happy but had to let them go.

The whole thing almost made her cry.

 

She gave away that tracksuit to Goodwill and dropped the necklace and the .9 mm semi-automatic into the Charles River a month later.

 

She’d stolen the gun from her father before she left home because a girl needs protection from the wrong type of guy, even if he looks golden. She also threw away Bobby’s grungy backpack, but kept the twenty-two thousand she found sewn into its lining. She was going to flush the rest of the cello bags down the toilet, but instead tucked them into the pockets of an old pair of jeans she threw in the bottom of the laundry hamper. Those bags might come in useful once the fall semester was underway. Rich kids were always looking to get high.

 

The new apartment wasn’t too large, but it had a washer and dryer, and she could look out and see the red bricks of Harvard rising up just beyond her. Cambridge was trendy, and she liked hearing the noise and chatter below. Maybe she’d take some extension classes or an on-line course or two. Maybe she’d get her degree. Lots of people were getting their degrees these days.

She had a nest egg now.

                      

One Little Pill

In the end, Celine supposed, all love stories ended in tragedy. 

She brushed a piece of lint off the sleeve of her black Chanel suit, grateful that the day was cool. The long sleeves covered the fading bruises on her arms. She peered one last time into the mirror to satisfy herself that her cosmetics covered the discoloration under her left eye. Perfect. She was ready to receive her guests.

Really, the viewing and funeral had been taxing enough, and the long ride to the family mausoleum ghastly. All those people offered such banal words of comfort; she, of course, received them graciously.

When the Hollander woman appeared—in church, no less—with her vulgar mink coat and too tight, too short dress and caterwauled like a beast, it had been an absolute circus.

“You killed him! You killed my Matthew!” she bellowed. Thank goodness Mr. Bishop and Mr. Davis had immediately and quite firmly shown her the door. Celine reminded herself to slip a substantial tip to the undertaker and his assistant for their efficiency. Celine believed in rewarding service well done.

At the time Celine had clutched her pearls and leaned back against James, who caught her arm and murmured soothing words into her ear. “Don’t worry, Moms, she’s gone now. Dad was an idiot. A rotten idiot.”

“He was your father, darling,” she said.

Matthew died because the arteries to his heart were more than eighty percent blocked. After forty years of red meat, alcohol, cigars, and women who were far too young for him, his blood was like wet cement. He was one week from an operation to replace three of his heart valves when a massive coronary struck him down. That was the decree of his doctor. Who was she to argue?

If only he’d been able to get to his nitroglycerin pills in time, he might have been able to call out for help. But no, he thrashed in his bed gurgling and choking and begging, his face turning from red to blue to purple as he choked for air. In the morning the tiny white pills lay scattered on the floor, and the bottle lay in the middle of the rug. It had been over in less than five minutes.

Her bedroom was down the hall, too far away for her to hear or help, Celine explained to Matthew’s doctor when he came personally that morning to fill out the death certificate. Though she was completely serene, she delicately dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. He patted her back and said she mustn’t blame herself.

She thanked him with all due sincerity. Matthew deserved far worse.

In the recesses of her dark heart Celine had always known Matthew had married her for her parents’ old money prestige, but even understanding that, she had loved him once. He was handsome and witty, and she had lovely memories of their honeymoon in Paris when he charmed her with his French, his appreciation of Monet and Matisse, his knowledge of the city. He had seemed charming and sophisticated then, so much so that she’d overlooked his arrogance, his rudeness to waiters and those he thought beneath him.

His temper. The temper he let loose with increasing frequency as the years passed. She’d grown tired of wearing long sleeves in summer and extra make up to cover the damage, but she was too proud to admit she’d made a mistake. He wanted her connections, and she enjoyed living in splendor. Everything in life came at a price.

Eventually his other women didn’t bother her in the least as long as they kept him out of her bed. She didn’t care about his rudeness or drinking as long as he directed it away from her. She would go and soothe the hurt feelings Matthew left in his wake. His deliberate cruelty was another thing entirely. She began to make a tally of every incident, every outrage, but Celine had allowed a tough shell to form around her heart. She was also patient.

Three years ago Matthew had deliberately run over her favorite cat, Montgomery, as the old fellow lay sunning himself in the driveway. Though infuriated, Celine said nothing. She had Montgomery cremated and enshrined his ashes in a sterling silver urn that she kept in her bedroom.

After Matthew’s own cremation, she collected his remains from Mr. Bishop and told the undertaker she needed to spend one last evening with her husband before he was forever entombed. Celine dumped his remains in the trash, and returned Montgomery’s silver urn over to the undertaker the next morning. She mixed in some cat liter to balance the weight.

Now Celine took a cleansing breath as she descended the marble stairs to greet her guests. It felt like a celebration.

She nodded sagely when Matthew’s law partner said, “My God, we just played eighteen holes at Merion the day before he died. He seemed fine, better than fine. But I guess you never know. The doc says if he could have gotten to those pills . . . ” His voice trailed off in a haze of scotch and regret. Matthew’s beloved Bunnahabhain 25. Celine never cared for scotch.

Celine nodded solemnly. It was such a small thing, that one little pill.

 

Olivia

That week after graduation we headed down the shore for Senior Week. In those days “down the shore” was the place to go. With its huge boardwalk, mile-wide beach and tons of hotels, Wildwood was the preferred place for the thousands of kids spilling from the Catholic and public high schools. We weren’t the rich prep schoolers. Our parents couldn’t afford trips to Cancun or Florida or the Bahamas, and it didn’t matter. The drinking age was eighteen; the pot was easy to get; and we were without parental supervision.

Our house sat four blocks back from the beach. Ten of us had paid one hundred dollars, but fifteen to over twenty-five kids would end up crashing there at night.

I remember the cloudless sunny days when we would head for the beach to bake ourselves. Even though I was a natural blonde, I never burned and slathered my skin in baby oil. I knew how good I looked in my bikini. Jake told me every day I was hotter than the sun.

 

I wasn’t like Olivia. I wasn’t sure how Olivia had managed to get in with our group, but she just showed up in her pink flowered sundress with a suitcase. Everything about Olivia was big and squashy. She never wore a bathing suit, just shorts and a tank top that stretched across her huge breasts. She had long dark hair and a big smile, so no one bothered her, especially since she volunteered to make breakfast.

When you’re hung over or coming down, it’s kind of nice to have someone to make you breakfast, even if it’s just dry toast and tomato juice. We decided to let Olivia have the small back bedroom because no one really wanted to share a bed with her. Jake said it was kind of like having a maid.

 

We all had our routines. Get up eat, head to the beach or wander the boardwalk, maybe grab some pizza, and start drinking. I don’t know what Olivia did. Sometimes she came down to the beach and sat reading a book. She always looked like someone’s mother because in addition to the shorts and tank top, she always wore a big floppy hat.

Some of the guys called her “Orca”, and the rest of us kind of laughed. I don’t know if Olivia heard or not.

 

The last night I saw her we were hanging on the boardwalk, and I was standing with Jake. It was a little breezy and he put his arms around my waist. I remember cuddling into him, hearing the beat of his heart. All around all people laughed and screamed, and I could smell cotton candy and buttered popcorn, the meaty grilled odor of hot dogs; tinny carnival music played while people yelled from the roller coaster and tilt-a-whirl. In the circle of Jake’s arms, though, I felt safe and protected.

He said, “Look, there’s Orca.”

A couple of people started to laugh, and I glanced up.

She was standing near the fudge shop with a guy who was kind of in the shadows, but he looked pretty big. I couldn’t see his face, but Olivia was smiling. I thought for a moment she had a pretty smile.

A bunch of our friends came up then, and when I looked over at the fudge shop Olivia was gone. I thought I glimpsed her walking away with the big guy, but the crowd swallowed them up.

I never saw her again.

 

A lifeguard found Olivia under the boardwalk two weeks later. She’d been strangled and raped and lay naked in the sand. I thought she’d be so embarrassed to be seen naked.

A few of us went to the funeral at St. Anastasia’s. It was closed casket because after two weeks, I guess she was in pretty bad shape.

I remember that it was stinking hot, and the stained glass windows sent gashes of garnet light across the floor. In my black dress, I stood in line and sweated and wondered why I felt I had to come to this service. Jake held my hand, his face screwed up in puzzlement. He didn’t quite understand why we were here either.

“It’s not like we were friends with her,” he said.

“We were with her at the shore, Jake. She was in our class. Please.”

He kissed me. “Whatever you want, baby,” he said. “But it’s kind of weird.”

I remember Olivia’s mom stood stone faced by the coffin as Jake and I approached her.

“I’m really sorry about Olivia,” I said, and Jake mumbled something similar.

She just nodded. “We’re you her friend? I don’t remember you.”

“We had some classes together. She was a very nice person,” I said. “We were all staying at the same house.”

“Yet not one of you knew who she walked off with.” Olivia’s mother looked like she wanted to say more, and I felt Jake’s hand tighten over mine. “Well, thank you for coming.”

I went up to Olivia’s coffin and knelt down to say a prayer, but nothing came out. All I could see was the round girl with the shorts and tank top walking down the boardwalk hand in hand with a guy whose face remained a shadow. He was never caught.

Any one of us could have been Olivia that night, except we were a group, and she was alone.

I couldn’t get it out of my head. Jake and I broke up a month later because he said I was obsessed.

Olivia walked with me for a long while. I felt her beside me when I set off for college and met many of her sisters on campus–the kind of girls I always mocked in high school—chubby and smart. When I tried to be friendly, they were polite and distant.

“The sorority girl wants our notes,” one girl said.

They liked to call me a dumb blonde, sometimes when I was in the same room. I told myself I didn’t care because I was still pretty and popular. I went to parties had boyfriends, and still got good grades, but none of the really smart people wanted me in their study groups.

When I graduated and went on to law school, the smart girls surrounded me. I felt a kinship with them, though now they excluded me even more as if I was a reject.

“Our group is filled,” one of the girls told me. “Try one of the guys’ groups. I’m sure they’d love to have you.” When I walked away, I heard her say, “Could you feel her draining your IQ or what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” someone else said. “She’ll be fine. She’s just here to grab a husband.”

Over the year, though, they began to soften toward me because I worked hard. In the middle of my second year, one actually invited me into a study group. I learned we weren’t so different. We were all trying to do something important with our lives, and if I was the girl they hated in high school, they were the girls who intimidated me in college. I don’t know if I would have realized it, if I hadn’t been for Olivia.

At graduation the girls congratulated me. When I hugged them and wished them luck, I did so sincerely. They were women of substance and had made me better by forcing me to excel. Many of them went on to powerful law firms, two are federal judges, and one works for the Secretary of State. I went to work for a mid-sized firm and do pro bono work for a non-profit that’s fighting to stop a proposed oil pipe line. We all keep in touch.

I did marry another lawyer. The girls were right about that.

When I finally greeted our daughter, I held her in my arms, felt her warm breath against my cheek and touched her tiny perfect fingers. It was as if I held my own redemption in my hands.

“She’ll be as pretty as her mother,” the nurse said as she left the room.

Later that day I dreamed Olivia was standing in the doorway in her too tight shorts, tank top, and floppy hat. She gazed from me to my daughter lying in the bassinet beside my bed, her face frozen into a mask of indifference.

“She’ll be different, I swear,” I whispered, but my voice came out hoarse and raw. “She’ll be clever and good and kind. She’ll be better than me. Please don’t let anything happen to her.”

Olivia just turned away.

 

Night Games

Red. Stop. Watch. Wait. Breathe in and out. Streams of light. Music and laughter inside the Tapas bar. So many pretty faces with red-lipped smiles and strong white teeth. She glances at me and smiles. I smile back. She takes a sip from her second glass of dark crimson wine.

See me sitting by the window. My eyes stare back at me. Hungry.

I swallow black beans and small beef strips. I gnaw at a chicken thigh grilled in green chili sauce. I touch a tart apple foam with my tongue. Not enough. Never enough.

Yellow. Caution. I pay my bill and step out into the steamy night. Too crowded. Many people roam about. Car horns honk. Across the street a boy vomits while his friends cheer. I walk to the alley down the street and pull on a black hoodie.

Green. Go. The restaurant door opens, and she is alone. She walks away from the noise. Four streets up. Two streets over. I am quick, quick. I am a shadow.

She reaches the house  and walks up the steps. She doesn’t fumble with the keys, but I am super fast. I force her through the door. We crash to the floor.

“Ouch,” she says. “This is the last time for this game, George. It’s gotten old.”

She is correct. It’s the last night for games.

I whisper, “Goodbye, Marie.”

Tonight is good.

 

Aftermath

BREAKING NEWS

 

HUNDREDS DEAD AFTER CAPITOL SLAUGHTER

 

 

 

Top Stories                                                                                                May 13, 2023

 

_____________________________  From John Libotti, CNN__________________________

 

·      Source: Captain Dwayne Marks, Capitol Police.

 

·      Witness said the gunmen appeared from nowhere.

 

·      Gunman used assault rifles with high capacity magazines

 

 

Washington, DC–The total body count is not yet final in the slaughter at the U.S. Capitol this morning, but death tolls are expected to rise to over 500. CNN can now confirm that 51 senators are dead, and 25 critically wounded, though names will not be released until family members are notified, and 307 congressional representatives are believed to be dead or wounded, though that number may rise. Over one hundred staff and legislative aids and twenty-five Capitol police officers may also have been killed or wounded in the worst act of terror committed on U.S. soil since 9/11. According to Captain Marks, the gunmen have been neutralized. Six are confirmed dead. Two are in critical condition.

 

Local hospitals have been overwhelmed by the casualties and have reached out to facilities like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the National Naval Hospital in Bethesda Maryland for help.

 

Little is known about the gunmen or how they gained access to the Capitol at this time, but DC Metro Police and FBI sources confirm that the shooters used M-4 carbine assault riffles with high capacity magazines. It is believed that one of the shooters may have been a former Navy Seal, but this has not yet been confirmed.

 

At this time the Army is assisting with the removal of the bodies.

 

The shooting comes on the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Access Bill, which called for the removal of all metal detectors from all public buildings with the exception of the White House and Supreme Court. The bill, which was part of the NRA’s “Don’t give an Inch” Campaign, helped propel a number of new pro-gun legislators into office.

 

President Donald Bartold will address a stunned nation this evening.

 

#

 

 

 

Mrs. Zamora Moves In

The apartment on Pine Street was surprisingly cheap, which worked well for me, considering it was my first apartment, and I didn’t have a lot to spend on rent. My landlady, Mrs. Franklin, lived on the first floor as did little Mr. Fiedler, a nice old gentleman I seldom saw, but who wore large hearing aids and a soft gray felt hat that he always tipped politely to me. A married couple named Jon and Erin Glascott, and a twenty-something woman named Maggie Luzzi, who was never there as far as I could tell except for the occasional Sunday when she breezed in to pick up some clothes and disappeared with her boyfriend, occupied the second floor apartments, and way up on the third floor I lived in a surprisingly spacious place. True, the ceiling sloped in the bathroom, which was tiny, and I needed a window air conditioner to augment the building’s central air that didn’t seem to work above the second floor, but the ceilings were high and the window seats were deep. I lived near the grocery and a bunch of cafes. Since I usually worked from seven to seven, I wasn’t going to be home much, so what could go wrong?

Within two weeks of my arrival, the Glascotts moved out. I didn’t care much that Glascotts were leaving. After all, I had only said hello once to them in the hallway, so it wasn’t like I was loosing best friends, but two days later I came home from work to see a tall woman swathed in what looked to be red scarves and black leggings standing in front of the building directing movers, and I stopped mouth agape.

The woman wore a red satin turban that sparkled with a huge rhinestone pin. I had never seen a modern woman wearing a turban, much less one so gaudy. It matched her four inch red patent leather stilettos. From the back the woman, despite her turban, was in great shape; she had the lithe body of a dancer and long, muscled legs; from the front, she had the face of a gargoyle. Too much plastic surgery left her eyes pulled up and back and her skin stretched unnaturally tight over her skull. Her lips had been enhanced by collagen implants and bloomed around her flashing white teeth. Guessing her age was impossible; she looked like she had been dipped in formaldehyde.

I almost dropped my bag of groceries.

I tried to slip past her, but she swung around to survey me, her right hand on her hip.

“You must be the third floor girl,” she said. “Kelsey? Katie?” She extended her hand palm down as if she expected me to kiss it.

“Alana,” I said. “Alana Carver.” I shook her hand and let go as quickly as possible.

“I knew you had a K in your name. I am Rasha Zamora. I’m moving in today. I don’t like loud rock and roll or rap music,” she said. “Or negative energy. I’m very sensitive.”

“I don’t play rap music,” I said and wondered if I had an escape clause in my rental contract. I didn’t care about the security deposit. “I work.”

I walked past her straight to the landlady’s apartment and saw Mrs. Franklin hovering in the hall in her usual dark blue shift. Her white hair looked a bit disheveled and the corners of her mouth pinched in distress when she saw me.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“Oh, Miss Carver. I had no idea who was moving in. She’s an old friend of Mr. Stinson, and he owns the building. He didn’t say anything.”

“Maybe she’s just eccentric.”

Mrs. Franklin seemed so discombobulated that I felt it was a bad time to say anything about my new neighbor, especially when I was so seldom home.

“She told me she wants me to cleanse the building. I don’t know what that means. It’s very clean.” She held out a bundle of what looked like straw tied together, and I smiled. White sage.

“She wants you to burn it. It’s a ritual. You burn the sage and the smoke is supposed to cleanse the bad spirits.”

Mrs. Franklin handed me the sage. “That sounds like one of those witch things. I’m no witch.” She walked back to her apartment and closed the door with a finality that left no doubt that she wasn’t dealing with the new tenant, the sage, or any witch rituals.

I figured a little sage wouldn’t hurt anything.

As I lay in bed reading that evening I heard the sound of music being played at top volume. “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” warbled the singer in the sort of high, semi-operatic voice I always hated. It seemed like the song was stuck on repeat because it played over and over again until I banged on the floor. Then it paused only to start up again.

I called Mrs. Franklin. “Get her to turn down that damn music,” I said.

Mrs. Franklin sighed loudly. “I think she’s a little deaf.”

“I want to go to sleep.”

At last the music stopped.

At six a.m. I was out the door and off to work. When I returned the damn song was playing. I could hear it as I climbed the stairs, sweating like a pig. I turned on the air conditioner, but I could still hear it. I turned on the television, but that song seeped through the walls.

It was time to take action. I walked down the stairs and knocked on Rasha Zamora’s door. After a moment she answered. The apartment smelled of burned sage, and the song blared in the background. Decorated in red and gold velvet with a big red oriental rug on the floor, the place looked like a bordello from the 1920’s. Giant red lamps trimmed in gold fringe stood on marble topped mahogany tables. It was as outrageous as Rasha Zamora who wore a black catsuit with a fuchsia chiffon skirt and jazz shoes.

“Mrs. Zamora,” I started, “That music.”

“It’s glorious, I know. My favorite song. Beyond the Blue Horizon. Only happy things to look forward to there. Jeanette McDonald sang it in Follow the Boys, you know. It’s the best version.”

“You’ve played it two days in a row.”

“It’s my good luck song,” she said and lifted her leg up in the air until it was almost horizontal. “Not too shabby, eh? Do you know I danced with Clark Gable and Cary Grant when I was younger?”

“That’s very nice for you, but I wonder if you might play the song a little quieter?”

“Quieter?” Rasha Zamora stared at me as if I’d told her the devil was coming for her soul. “I am releasing positive energy into this building,” she said. “You’ll see.”

“That may be, but I can’t sleep.”

“You should download your own copy, or whatever you young people do now. It will bring you luck. And don’t forget to burn white sage to cleanse your apartment. Listen to the lyrics, dear. They’ll make you happy.” She went to a large brass urn and pulled out a bundle of white sage then shooed me to the door. “Take this and burn it. Now I must stretch.”

“But I—“

“Just feel the positive energy.” She closed the door.

I went to my apartment and made brownies for dinner.

The next morning I wrapped the leftovers and on my way to work put them outside of Rasha Zamora’s door thanking her for the sage. When I came home that evening, my empty dish sat in front of my door along with a red crystal and a note of thanks. The crystal, she wrote, would help me find true love.

Our relationship continued this way. Every night I made something for Rasha Zamora, and every day when I returned from work I’d receive a little note with a stone or a healing crystal. Sometimes she would invite me to her apartment and tell me about her days as a dancer. The good days, she called them, when she danced in the movies or on Broadway.

“But eventually you get old,” she said. “You run out of energy. Sometimes when you’re young and beautiful, you’re foolish. You don’t realize how quickly it passes. Then pouf, you’re an old husk.” She smiled when I started to protest. “Oh no. I don’t regret a thing. In life you always go forward.”

After a while I .0

got used to Beyond the Blue Horizon, maybe because it didn’t sound quite as loud or maybe because it just became background noise. It got stuck in my head, and I’d find myself humming it at odd times. Mrs. Zamora would ask if I felt the positive energy. I always said yes, though I’m not sure I felt anything.

One night the apartment was quiet. It felt odd after months of Beyond the Blue Horizon. It was so odd, I couldn’t sleep. The next morning I knocked on Mrs. Zamora’s door, but there was no answer.

When I returned from work, the EMT’s were taking her away in a black plastic bag.

“Poor thing,” Mrs. Franklin said. “Did you know she was eighty-nine?”

“She danced with Gable and Cary Grant,” I said, feeling oddly nostalgic.

“She was a pip,” Mrs. Franklin said. “But I think I’ll miss her all the same. Her and that silly song.”

I watched the ambulance pull away into traffic and thought Mrs. Zamora had flown beyond the blue horizon at last.

 

 

The Hunters (Story A Day Challenge 14)

       

On the edge of a mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.  It is a hunting lodge of sorts, outfitted in the most Spartan way with a lumpy cot, a sleeping bag and several filthy blankets, a moldy pillow. It has no electricity though there is a fireplace, and the shelves are stocked with the necessities: plastic containers of water, cans of coffee, tins of vegetables and Spam. A few plastic bags of beef jerky lie on the rough hewed wood table next to a large lantern. There is one glass window that’s covered with a film of yellowed plastic.

 

            The cottage is not inviting. It’s a lonely place teetering at the precipice of the mountain, but the view of the valley is spectacular. The man busily shoveling doesn’t care about the view today. He has more pressing thoughts on his mind.

 

            In the red-gold light the deer are both intrigued and frightened by the sound of digging. They sense danger, but do not run yet; they remain hidden in the thick trees along the ridge, their breath coming in quick puffs of white.

 

            The snows are coming. Not tonight, but soon.

 

            The man’s voice pierces the quiet.  “What do you think, Oscar, have I dug deep enough? Been working on it long enough.”

 

            A small brown and white dog runs around him barking and pawing at the  burlap sack tied to the back of the bay gelding who stands patiently next to the pile of rocks the man has moved earlier.

 

            “Now, Oscar, be still. We have work to do.” He cuts the rope that binds the sack to the gelding, and the sack falls with a thud to the hard earth.  Grunting, he drags the sack to the deep hole and pushes it in.

 

            “Go to hell,” he says and starts to hum. Twilight is coming, and he contemplates waiting to fill in the hole, but knows it has to be done now. He can’t risk the ground freezing.

 

            The deer move a little closer, watching him shovel layer after layer of earth into the huge hole before he slowly pushes the rocks on top. The area doesn’t look quite the same as before. A buck paws the ground uneasily.

 

            That quickly the man turns and fires the rifle lying on the ground beside him. The buck falls and the rest of the herd scatters. The man smiles.

 

            “Did you see that, Oscar? I could feel ‘em watching. What a shot! Almost dark too.” He pulls at the gelding’s reins. “Come on, Forsooth.” Horse and man walk carefully up the embankment to where the stag lays. He’s a young one, but he’ll do. The man slings him over the horse’s back and heads down the ridge with Oscar.

 

            It’s close to eight when he arrives home. It’s dark and cold now, but there’s a casserole in the oven all warm and bubbly. The table’s set for him, and Sarah places the casserole in front of him. Oscar trots into the kitchen.

 

            “Walter, where were you?” Her voice falters at the sight of the blood on his clothes.

 

            “Got me a young buck up the mountain. Was tracking him for hours,” Walter says. He washes his hands and sits at the table without going upstairs to change. “What’s the matter, Sarah, you look a little pale.”

 

            “You know I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Sarah backs against the stove. She wishes she had the nerve to swing the meat cleaver against Walter’s head, but she has to wait. Soon Edward will come, and she’ll leave everything behind.

 

            They’ve planned so carefully. Edward will pick her up, and they’ll just go. She’s even hidden money away for it.

 

            She dishes out food for Oscar who runs over to slurp it up.

 

            “Yessir, We’ll have some mighty good venison,” Walter says and digs into the casserole. It tastes especially good tonight. “You’re a great cook, Sarah. That’s the best casserole you ever made. What’s in it?”

 

            “Oh, just the usual. Diced tomatoes, cheese, meat, potatoes, onion, all that.”

 

            “Well, you’re a good wife, Sarah. I never want to lose you.”

 

            “I know Walter.”

 

            “Here, Oscar come taste this.” He snaps his fingers and the dog comes running but he just sniffs at the glob of casserole. “What’s the matter? You ate too much already?” Walter stuffs his fingers into his mouth. “Your loss.” He looks at Sarah. “Ain’t you eating?”

 

            “I did earlier. I was saving the casserole. I wanted it to be perfect.”

 

            Walter grunts. “I’m gonna go skin that deer, then I’ll wash up.” He turns and looks at her from the door, his face bland. “By the way, I think that Edward Ames fella up and moved on. I wouldn’t expect to see him around here again.”

 

            Sarah takes a breath before she answers. “Did he?”

 

            Walter nods. “Got to get to that buck.”

 

            She sits down on the kitchen chair trembling when he goes out to take care of the deer and wonders what he did to Edward. She wonders if he’s found her small reserve of cash. She’s afraid to check.

 

            Sarah looks at the casserole. Walter’s eaten almost half. She places the casserole in the refrigerator and washes the dishes. She goes to bed meaning to read, but can’t concentrate. When she hears Walter enter she turns off the light and pretends to be asleep, but she knows it won’t matter. Even after his shower, he still smells of blood when he crawls into bed.

 

            “Sarah, I did it for you,” Walter says. He feels a little dizzy, but he can see the outline of his wife in her white nightgown and is filled with desire. “I do everything for you.”

 

            He grabs her and pushes the nightgown up. He yanks down her underwear  and thrusts himself into her, telling her he loves her, over and over. Sarah doesn’t need to do anything. He squeezes her breasts and comes inside her. She wants to vomit.

 

            In the morning, Walter feels a little off, but he goes out to do his chores. He chops a load of wood and feeds the livestock. A storm is coming. He can smell the snow. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get out in a blizzard, and phone service can go off at anytime. He thinks about driving into town, but decides he’s tired. He’s had too much lifting and hauling the last few days. He finishes the casserole at lunch, but by dinner he feels gut sick. Sarah gives him chicken soup as the flakes begin to fall, but Walter can only swallow a little before the diarrhea strikes.

 

            The weather service announces that this will be a bad storm, maybe two or more feet of snow. Sheriff Joe Allan calls to ask if they need anything, and Sarah says they’re fine for now. Joe Allan says to call if they need anything. He always has been a little sweet on Sarah. She could have married anyone on the mountain, but her father was greedy and practically sold her to Walter Nolan because he needed cash to keep his logging business afloat. Joe Allan thinks it’s a crime in these modern times to be able to sell a daughter for cash.

 

            No wonder Sarah fell a little for that young Edward Ames from Seattle. He’d come through scouting locations for some software business looking to bring jobs to underdeveloped areas. They had big ideas about keeping the area green and growing the economy. Joe Allan isn’t sure a software company is the answer to the job problems in this area, but he has hopes.  Logging is all they have, but he doesn’t want to see his beloved mountain stripped clean, even though he understands that the men need jobs.

 

            It made him happy to see Sarah with the old twinkle in her eyes. Now she sounds tired and beat down again. If she’d even look in his direction, he’d take her away, but for now all he can do is offer to help if they get snowed in.

 

            By midnight the snow is falling hard, and everything seems strangely hushed. Even the wind seems muffled by the falling snow. Joe Allan looks out of his bedroom window and watches some small animal–a fox maybe—dart  around the edge of his house. This is light powdery snow that drifts down and sparkles in the emergency lights around his house. Just for fun he takes a ruler outside. It’s already over ten inches. He thinks about Sarah locked up in that big house on the ridge and lifts his face to the sky. Snow brushes his face like frozen kisses.

 

            Walter lies on the floor huddled near the toilet while Sarah fetches him a fresh ice pack. He can feel the fever building. He must have caught something out in the woods digging. He stayed too late. He should have come back sooner, but what if someone found the burlap sack? He closes his eyes and rests his head against the porcelain rim.

 

            “Okay, Walter,” says Sarah, “put this on the back of your head. It’ll cool you down. You have a fever is all. You must have got the flu.”

 

            Walter is so thirsty, but he can’t keep anything down. He starts to see things like Edward Ames’ bloody face right before he wrapped him in plastic and rolled him in burlap. Edward Ames was going to run off with Sarah. That just wasn’t right.

 

            Walter can hear the stag paw the ground right before he shoots it.

 

            Sarah watches Walter clutch the rim and babble about the deer and the hole in the ground. She listens to the soft whoosh of the snow and leans over. “You just lie here, Walter, you’ll feel better in the morning.”

 

            In the morning Walter is slumped by the toilet covered in vomit. Sarah draws him a bath and helps him into it. She props him in the tub and cleans the mess on the floor.

 

            “What’s . . . wrong . . . with  . . . me?”

 

            Walter’s face is yellow. His eyes are bloodshot from retching so hard. Clearly his liver is failing.

 

            “I don’t know, Walter. We don’t have phone service, and it’s still snowing. But I can take the jeep and try to get to Joe Allan.”

 

            “No, stay here.” Walter tries to rise up, but sinks back into the water.

 

            Sarah wonders how long he can go on without water or food. “I’ll get you some ice. Maybe you can chew on it.”

 

            Outside the snow keeps falling. So fast and hard that she can barely see the outline of the barn, but she needs to go out and feed the chickens and the horse. She needs to check for eggs. Sarah ties a piece of rope to her waist and attaches it to the door before she makes her way to the barn. She puts a blanket on the horse, mucks out his stall, and gives him fresh oats and hay. She feeds the chickens and checks for eggs. Then heads back to the house.

 

            Oscar barks when she returns and sheds her wet things. She feeds him and checks the phone. No dial tone. She checks on Walter. He’s vomited and shit again so she puts him back in the tub when she changes the sheets. She decides to leave him in the bathtub so she can hose him off and covers him with a sheet and blanket. Walter’s eyes look glazed.

 

            “What happened to me?” he says.

 

            Sarah just wipes his face with a damp cloth. “Try to sleep.” She brings him more ice chips.

 

            By evening the snow starts to slow and Joe Allan is out directing the plowing. He glances up at the ridge determined to get up there by tomorrow morning at the latest.

 

            The moon begins to push through the clouds, an almost full moon—either waxing or waning. The silver light casts eerie shadows on the woods. Deer, foxes and bears watch the men with their plows carve out roads through the powdery snow.

 

            “There’s some trees down,” one of the men says. “It’ll take a while.

 

            “Let’s get to it,” says Joe Allan. “There’re people stranded up there.”

 

            Despite his best efforts, Joe Allan and his men don’t get through to Sarah and Walter Nolan’s house until late afternoon of the next day. He finds Sarah trying to coax Walter into sucking on some ice while he floats naked in tepid bathwater.

 

            “Oh thank God, you got through,” Sarah says, and throws her arms around Joe Allan. “Walter’s been so sick for the past day. I don’t know what it is. I tried calling but the phone’s been out.”

 

            Joe Allan looks at Walter. He’s a pathetic specimen right now. Jaundiced, red-eyed, wasting away, he looks like something from a horror movie.

 

            “I don’t think we can wait for an ambulance. We’ll get him out of here now, Sarah.”

 

            They wrap Walter up as best they can and load him into one of the heavy- duty plows.

 

            “Jesus Christ, what happened to him?” someone says.

 

            “Just get him down to County General,” says Joe Allan. “I’ll bring Mrs. Nolan down myself.”

 

            “Can I make some coffee for you and the boys, Joe?” Sarah asks. “I’ve got a big urn.”

 

            “We’d appreciate it, Sarah. What happened?”

 

            Sarah frowns. “I don’t know. He came home a couple nights ago with a buck. We had dinner, and by the time the storm started, he was sick as a dog.” She sighs. “It was awful, Joe. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Talking crazy. He said he saw Ed Ames down a hole way up the mountain near his cabin where he shot that buck. Is that even possible?”

 

            Joe Allan shakes his head. Now it makes sense. Before the storm hit, he’d gotten a call from Edward Ames’s company. The guy hadn’t checked in or called in over four days. If he is buried up that mountain, they won’t find him until spring.

 

            Joe Allan pats Sarah’s hand. “Tell you what. I know you’re worried about Walter, but driving down the mountain tonight is crazy. You should wait till tomorrow. The roads’ll be better then. I’ll find out about Walter then you can take what he needs to the hospital.”

 

            “Joe, that’s just so kind of you. I’m so grateful. Tell the truth I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since he’s been sick.  Here, I’ll make you that coffee.”

 

            After the sheriff and his men have left, Sarah takes the coffee grounds and lays them on a piece of plastic. She goes to the freezer to remove the jar with all the scrapings from the casserole. She triple wraps everything in plastic and puts on her boots and coat. She slides a pair of extra batteries in the pocket then grabs the lantern. The snow is up to her knees, but she makes her way to the barn, clears a space under the hay and begins to dig. She spends a long time at it because the ground is hard. At last the hole is deep enough, and she drops the package into it and shovels the dirt on top. She stamps around the place she was digging until the dirt looks flat and undisturbed then mixes some hay on top of it. She makes her way back to the house and washes her hands.

 

            At the hospital the tests will show that Walter has ingested a massive amount of Amanita phalloides mixed in with Amanita virosa or death angel mushrooms mixed with destroying angel mushrooms. Unfortunately the toxin from the mushrooms has destroyed Walter’s liver and kidneys and his systems are shutting down.  He’s dying in the Intensive Care Unit despite the hospital’s best efforts.

 

            “If only we’d gotten to him earlier,” Dr Kitteridge says, “He might have had a chance. The damn snow.”

 

            “I just don’t understand where Walter would have gotten mushrooms at this time of year,” Joe Allan says to Sarah as they watch Walter struggling to live.

 

            She looks at him with wide blue eyes. Her lips tremble slightly. “I just don’t know, though you know how he always said he could live off the land. He kept all kinds of things in that cabin of his.”

 

            Eventually, she knows they’ll find a glass jar with the residue of those mushrooms and maybe some packets of beef jerky, though she figures that Walter ate the jerky. She knows her fingerprints have long been wiped clean on that jar.

 

            The doctor waves Sarah into the room. “I’ll give you a little privacy,” he says. “He hasn’t got much time.”

 

            Sarah takes Walter’s hand gently and smiles. She leans very close to his ear as if she’s kissing him. “When you die, Walter, I’m going to put you in a hole too,” she says.

 

            Walter’s eyes grow wide and his pulse jumps erratically. He can’t speak because of the tube in his throat.

 

            Sarah lays Walter’s hand on his chest. “Goodbye, Walter.”

 

            She walks out to Joe Allan, and puts her hand on his arm. “You’ve been such a rock for me, Joe. Would you stay a little longer?” She lays her head against his shoulder. She’s always liked Joe; he’s kind and good. She could get used to someone like that.

 

            Joe Allan feels his heart swell. “Anything for you, Sarah. Anything for you.”

 

            Walter lies in his bed dying. He remembers the stillness of the high mountains, the peace. He doesn’t know how Sarah knew about Ed Ames, and he’ll never know. That’s the hell of it. He thinks about the buck hanging in the barn and realizes she got him just like he got that buck.

 

            In Walter’s cabin mice scurry about looking for crumbs of food, but find nothing. Walter has removed anything they could eat. Beef jerky wrappers lie on the floor. Water drips through a hole in the ceiling onto the spot near the fireplace, and great icicles hang from the eaves.

 

            Out on the mountain the deer pick their way though the deep snow foraging for whatever plants they can find. They come to the rocks near the cabin and sniff. Something is different: something dark and decaying lies hidden deep beneath the earth.

 

            A stag lifts its head. The scent of death and danger hangs in the air here, but it dissipates in the biting wind.

 

 

After The Summer (Story A Day 13)

It was eleven o”clock, and she felt like she’d been at work for a month when Sam Chase stood and walk to the window to stare out at the street below. People scurried past, traffic was beginning to grow heavy in anticipation of the noon rush; two police cars wove in and out of the rest of the cars and trucks, sirens blaring. Life in its rawest form existed here.

Sam thought there were city people and suburbanites. She knew she could never live out in suburbs in a house with a manicured green lawn and commute each day to work on the train. She’d miss the grittiness of the city. Here she walked everywhere from her apartment to work, to restaurants and cafes, to the theater. She didn’t need a car. She just loved that.

“Sam?”

She started and turned. “Jim, I’m sorry. You caught me taking a break.”

“That’s a first.” Jim McDonough, the managing partner laughed. “Mind if I come in for a moment?”

“Not at all.” Damn, he would catch me starting out the window, she thought.

He eased himself into one of the leather chairs in front of her desk. “First thing, Sam. Your work on the Mester deal was a work of art. I wanted to personally congratulate you before the official hoopla.”

Sam smiled uncertainly. Jim McDonough seldom, if ever, came down to give personal congratulations to anyone. Good work was its own reward, especially for younger members of the firm. True she’d reaped some hefty bonuses and congratulations in official meetings, but almost never a private audience with Jim McDonough in person. Except after last summer, but that was exceptional in a lot of ways.

“That you,” she said. “I was so grateful to work on a project that important.”

“Well, you proved yourself repeatedly over the last few years, especially last summer. That’s why I wanted to tell you personally that we’ve decided to make you a partner. It’s not official yet, so I’d ask you not to talk about it. We’ll work out the perks and details later. I will say it involves a hefty pay raise.”

Sam felt as if she were being pumped with helium. Partner here in this city she always loved. She thought after last summer she’d be relegated to some rathole, even if she had saved the company from a disaster. Marks and McDonough didn’t like disasters. It was bad for business, even if they had the personnel to make disasters disappear.

Sam was about to answer when Jim said. “There’s more. We’re expanding our operations and looking for people we can trust to step in and get everything up and running.”

“Expanding where?” Sam felt a niggle of concern. Maybe this was the part about the rathole office. She swallowed hard.

“Paris.”

She sat back in her chair. “Paris, France?”

He nodded.

She’d spent a semester in Paris when she was in college and dreamed of going back before life got in the way. She could already picture the narrow streets lined with little shops, the darling cafes, the boulevards, the shopping, the museums.

Jim was talking about the company buying apartments for the senior management, but she was scarcely listening. She was walking along the Seine pretending to Audrey Hepburn, except in her case there was no Cary Grant. Of course, in real life, there were no Cary Grants.

“Who else is going?”

Jim shifted in his seat a little. Uncomfortably, she thought. “Bob Kerrigan, Gordon Albright, Mark Levin, Rebecca Judson, Maya Lee, and you to start. Plus Tom Kestler. I’m sure there’ll be some other additions. Nothing’s final yet. Consider this a promotion with a huge perk.”

“But why us?”

“Well, for one thing, you all speak French.”

He stood, and she shook his hand, knowing the conversation was at an end. When he left she fell back into her chair. She spoke basic French, and it was rusty and Bob Kerrigan spoke Spanish. She didn’t know about the others, except she thought Maya might speak Japanese and maybe some French. Mark Levin was brilliant and probably did speak any number of languages. She didn’t know about Gordon or Rebecca. She didn’t know about Tom Kestler, except that she didn’t like him. The only other thing she knew was they were all involved in the incident last summer. They resolved it. They made it disappear. Were they being rewarded or exiled?

She saw Maya lee pass her office and waved her in, but Maya kept walking. She gripped the files in her arms, her face determinedly neutral.

Later Sam watched Gordon Albright walk to the elevator, his head bent down and his briefcase gripped in his left hand. Mark Levin strolled out ten minutes later, and she was sure they were meeting somewhere for drinks. They had always been close. Bob Kerrigan and Rebecca Judson worked upstairs, and she didn’t get a chance to see them. She didn’t want to see Tom Kestler.

Nobody was celebrating this dream promotion.

Sam took a breath, then another, and reached a point of clarity. She knew deep down this coming. Somebody always had to clean up messes, and then what? She’d been afraid of what she knew, but she wasn’t stupid. She put her affairs in order. She thought she’d been careful. Maybe the others had been careful as well, or maybe they hadn’t anticipated this day.

At seven o’clock Sam closed her computer as usual, though she’d accomplished almost nothing, and placed it in its padded sleeve. It was misting outside. That was good. She slipped into her raincoat, took the express elevator, and checked out.

The rain was light but persistent when Sam caught the T to Faneuil Hall, and she was grateful to grab a seat to herself. Before exiting the train, she left her computer wedged between the side of the car and seat. On a Friday evening in spring she knew the market would be crowded with all kinds of people. She wandered through the outdoor vendor stalls and up the stairs into the inside gallery. Teenagers pushed past her, eager to get to the open-air concert near the Hall itself, and she was able to slip out of her heels and into a pair of flats. Despite the cool air she took off her Burberry raincoat, shook it out, and brought a purple tote with BOSTON stamped on it in red letters. After transferring the contents of her briefcase into the tote she dumped the empty case in a trash can. Her coat was reversible, so she turned it inside out, shivering a little at the dampness.

Sam doubled back and slipped out into the main courtyard of the marketplace where the band was tuning up and managed to work her way through the crowd back toward State Street. In the process she let her cell phone drop to the ground where someone was sure to step on it, kick it about, or maybe even use it. It was conceivable an honest person would turn it in, but she figured it would take a while. She walked briskly to the nearest T-stop. She could walk to her destination, but this would be better.

An apartment in the North End awaited her, but she wasn’t going there to stay. Her bags were already packed and loaded into a Honda Civic. In an hour she would be heading for parts unknown. The thought chilled her. She had always loved the city; she might be leaving it forever.

She wondered if she was the only one making plans to escape or if tomorrow, the other honorees would have disappeared as well. They knew after last summer a price would have to be paid. Mark Levin had even said Kaddish.

He was right. Now Sam Chase was going to die. The person taking her place melted into the city night. She exited the T and made her way through the winding streets of the North End. Rabbits hung from butchers windows, blood staining the fur around their necks. The rabbits always made her uneasy. Sam walked quickly to her the garage where her car was waiting and opened the padlock. She started up the car and backed out. Just the sight of those rabbits made her too uneasy to even go near the apartment. She had enough to get away. Greed made you stupid. She took a last breath of the city she loved and melted into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Affair of the Dress

Alexis stepped into the violet confection of taffeta and pulled it up; she carefully zipped it and watched in horror as the ruffled top sagged down, down into a crumpled mess just above her hips. Her breasts peaked out of the material like two frightened eyes.

 

            “Oh shit,” she said.

 

            Six weeks ago the dressmaker had clucked around her at the final fitting and pronounced her finished. Alexis thought she looked like a weird flower. She hated ruffles and frills and the stupid hats all the attendants had to wear. Worst, as maid of honor, her dress was the brightest, most ruffled dress of all.

 

            “You look beautiful,” Jen said and hugged her.

 

            Alexis knew perfectly well that she look frightful, and Jen only picked the dresses because they were designed by Miranda Palmer, Jen’s sister-in-law to be.

 

            “Did she have to make them so frilly?”

 

            “Oh, Alex, you know you couldn’t show up in a business suit. Anyway your waist looks tiny.” Jen was always diplomatic.

 

            Today, however, diplomacy wasn’t going to help shrink the dress.

 

            Alexis held the dress over her breasts and walked down the hall to Jen’s room where people buzzed about her. She walked in without knocking.

 

            “Jen, I have a problem with the dress,” she said and let it go.

 

            Jen squealed, “Oh my God.”

 

            “Oh my goodness, what happened here?” Jen’s mom Ruth came over to Alexis and surveyed her. “Well, you can’t go up the aisle in that, dear. No good flashing the guests. It would be in bad taste. We have two hours. I’m calling Arnold. He’ll find you something.”

 

            Alexis just nodded. Ruth dragged her out of the room and pulled out her phone. Arnold seemed to be on speed dial.

 

            “Arnold, darling, It’s Ruth. I’ve got a problem. Yes, it’s this damn wedding.” She glanced at Alexis again. “It seems that one of our bridesmaid gowns has come in the wrong size. No, darling, it’s huge. She’s just a little thing. You saw those awful purple gowns. I need something purple. She’s the maid-of-honor. What can you bring me? Coloring? Oh, yes. Green eyes, very dark hair with a touch of red. I’d call it mahogany. No more than five two.” She put her hand over the phone. “What size do you wear, dear?”

 

            Alexis felt her cheeks turn pink. “Six or eight,” she mumbled, feeling hefty.

 

            “She says six or eight, but how about I measure her and text you? Yes, she’ll need shoes to match and some kind of hat. Well, you saw those idiot hats, didn’t you? Just find me something, dearest, and try to be here in a half hour. Kisses.”

 

            Ruth pushed Alexis into her room. “Strip,” she said. “I’ll be back with a tape measure.

 

            Alexis was used to Ruth. She ran the house like she did everything else, as if she were the queen of the universe. No body said no to Ruth Foster Granger. It just wasn’t done. This wedding was scheduled for three, and it would happen at three. The sun would shine; the lawn of the house where the reception was to be held would be perfectly manicured; the imported flowers would be perfectly placed; and the light would sparkle beautifully over the Atlantic Ocean behind the house. All would go as planned. Nothing so petty as a dress would spoil Ruth Foster Granger’s daughter’s very special day. Alexis was surprised that she allowed the purple dresses in the first place.

 

            As they waited for Arnold, Ruth paced the room.

 

            “If you’d rather be with Jen, it’s fine. I don’t mind waiting,” Alexis said. “I’m sure if they send Arnold up here, we can figure it out.”

 

            “You’ve lost quite a lot of weight, Alex,” Ruth said as if Alexis hadn’t spoken. “How did you do that?”

 

            “I didn’t plan it. I just work long hours at Fleming Price. I don’t have much time for long lunches and most nights, it’s tuna and carrots before I fall asleep on the couch.” Alexis smiled. “I love it though. I like being busy. It feels good to pay off those college debts.”

 

            “You always did have a lot of initiative,” Ruth said. “Jen never really knew what she wanted to do.”

 

            “Some people just figure it out faster than others,” Alexis said.

 

            “You mean some people have to figure it out faster than others.”

 

            Alexis shook her head. “No, Jen’s always been great. She’s kind and generous. She could run a charity or work with kids. She’s smart; she could do anything.”

 

            “And she’s my daughter, so she will get the chance,” Ruth said. Her face softened for a moment, and she touched Alexis’s cheek. “You’ve always been Jen’s rock. I don’t know about this idiot she’s marrying except he’s stinking rich with new money. Be there for her, won’t you?”

 

            “Of course.”

 

            “Promise me. Always.” Ruth produced a folder. “Look this over when you get the chance. It’s their pre-nup. I had it drawn up. It’s a good one. I want you to make sure there aren’t any gaps, and if anything goes wrong, you handle it.”

 

            “Ruth, you know that’s not my area of expertise.” Alexis felt as if the envelope weighed a hundred pounds when Ruth handed it to her.

 

            “But you’ll take care of it anyway.”

 

            “Of course, but do you think?”

 

            “I think a woman needs insurance, especially someone as naïve as Jen. Promise.”

 

            Alexis nodded. “I promise.”

 

            A tentative knock on the door sounded.

 

            “Enter,” Ruth shouted.

 

            A thin man in a bright blue suit entered. He wore a white shirt with white stripes and a hot pink tie and carried garment bags and assorted other bags with him.

 

            “Arnold,” Ruth said. “This is Alex. Do your magic. I’ve got to see to my daughter.”

 

            Arnold smiled. “Just so. It will be an honor. Now away with this monstrosity, and I will make you a queen.”

 

            “Give me what you’ve got,” Alexis said”

 

            By three o’clock, Arnold and his team had re-done her hair, pulling it into a soft twist and decorating it with a cascade of purple flowers, and he had dressed her in a Valentino gown of deep violet silk. It was simple and tightly fitted around her body with a small keyhole opening in the top to give a chaste glimpse of her breasts. The purple Jimmy Choos made her four inches taller.

 

            “You’re the maid of honor. You don’t wear a hat,” Arnold said.

 

            Alexis saw the envious glances of the other bridesmaids as she sailed down the stairs and waited for Jenny. Miranda Palmer hissed, “Where’s your real dress?”

 

            “It didn’t fit,” Alexis said. “Ruth got me a new one.”

 

            The mention of Ruth’s name was enough to make Miranda back away, her face screwed in a tight frown.

 

            Jen looked radiant, and squeezed Alexis’s hand. “Thank you for this,” she said.

 

            Alexis grinned. “Hey. What are friends for?”

 

            “We’ll always be friends, won’t we?”

 

            “You’re stuck with me,” Alexis said.

 

            Alexis could hear the music starting, and Jen’s father came over to take her arm. “Look of the pair of you,” he said. “The most beautiful girls here.”

 

            The doors opened and the procession started.

 

            On that Saturday afternoon, the wedding ceremony went without a hitch, the weather was perfect, and the bride and groom danced their first dance to “You Stepped Out of Dream”. Alexis sat back in her chair having slipped out of the Jimmy Choos and sipped on a mimosa and enjoyed the seabreeze wafting over her. It was cool but not too cool. Tomorrow she’d drive home and get back to reality, but tonight she was happy to bask in the glow of the joy of the evening. She didn’t want to think about the manilla envelope sitting in her room. Weddings were about celebrating joy; the ugly aftermath came later. She didn’t want to think about it on this evening. She was wearing her first designer dress and wanted to enjoy the evening.

 

            A man approached her. Parker Howe Blackwood the twenty-second or some such nonsense; he was one of those tall, good-looking rowing gods who never gave her a second glance in high school. Of course, she wasn’t in high school any more.

 

            “Alexis, right?” he said, white teeth flashing against his perfect tan, and she thought it was unfair that he should be rich, athletic, and good looking. No one should have that many aces.

 

            “And you’re Parker.” She watched him carefully. Smart or smarmy?

 

            “That’s right. Jen said you work at Fleming Price, and I’d better pray I don’t come up against you.”

 

            “I’m in property law. I don’t go to court.”

 

            “Thank God. Maybe you’d like to dance?”

 

            Alexis gave him a smile. At least he didn’t seem smarmy. Overall, it had been a good day. “Well, Parker, I would love to dance.”

 

                         

 

Mom’s Last Laugh

              My mother was late for her own funeral. It’s not unusual considering throughout her life, my mother was late for everything. She made an art of it. My father said she worked on Irish time; my mother called him a silly Prussian. They made an art of insulting each other with great affection.

             My mother was a teacher of seventh grade science, and she was never late for class. She was ruthlessly efficient about being on time for school, but in all other areas of her life, time was a thing of little consequence. It drove my father, who fervently believed in punctuality, crazy.

            Nonetheless, she was late for her funeral. It didn’t matter that she lay in the funeral home right next to the church, dressed in her best red suit. I’d picked it because it was her favorite. I remember going with my father the day to make arrangements. The funeral director was kind. He was, in fact, one of my mother’s former students.

            “Do you have a recent picture?” he asked kindly.

            I didn’t want anyone seeing my mother the way she looked recently. She died of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a disease that turned her lungs to cement. When she died, she was barely ninety-five pounds. She’d hate to be remembered like that.

            My father just shook his head. He couldn’t get past the thought that his Louie was gone. The morning she died, he showed up on my doorstep in a panic.

            “I think Mom’s dead,” he said. “You need to come check.” Then he started to cry. I stood there in my ratty plaid nightgown and patted him. I think I said it would be okay. It didn’t seem real. Mom couldn’t be dead, yet she had been dying by inches for the past five years.

            My husband came downstairs, expressed condolences and said he’d watch the kids who were still asleep.

            It took me a minute to throw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.

            I drove with Dad to their apartment right down the road. They had sold their massive five bedroom house because it had become too much to keep up. They now had a lovely garden apartment. My mother hated it because she missed the house; my father loved it because it was small and comfortable and all one floor.

            The sun had just risen over the horizon, and the sky was all pink and orange. I thought it was too beautiful a day to die. The weather was perfect, not too hot or cold, the leaves were falling, but the trees were still bright with color—red and gold and orange. Fall was my favorite time of year, but didn’t it herald the end of life and the beginning of winter?              

            I knew my mother was dead the moment I crossed the threshold of their bedroom. She lay on her back, gray-skinned with her mouth slightly open.

            “Please check,” Dad said, his voice trembling.

            I went over and took her hand. It was cold. I put my hand in front of her face to feel for breath. Nothing. I felt for a pulse. Nothing. “She’s gone, Dad.” I couldn’t believe I was so calm.

            “Put her teeth in. I can’t stand to see her without her teeth in. She’d be so embarrassed.”

            “What?” I looked at my father like he was crazy, but he was serious. He wanted me to put in my mother’s dentures.

            They floated in a cup beside the bed. I stared at the creepy teeth, floating in the viscous fluid and felt sick. I would have been a lousy nurse. Still, my father stood in the doorway watching me expectantly. I reached into the cup, pulled out the uppers from the slimy water, and wiped them with a tissue.

            “Where’s that denture stuff?” I asked.

            My father produced a tube that contained pink goo that resembled toothpaste. I spread it over the uppers and proceeded to jam them into my mother’s mouth. I suppose if you wear dentures, you get used to the whole procedure, but I don’t wear them. Further my mother was not cooperating.

            She had been dead a little over two hours by now, so rigor mortis was probably beginning to set in. Trying to get her mouth open far enough to push the teeth in was hard, if not impossible. I pushed. I shoved. I climbed onto the bed until I was straddling my mother and jamming these teeth into her mouth, but the effect made her look bucktoothed.

            I felt obscene. I could hear my father crying.

            “Dad,” I said. “We’re going to stop messing with her teeth. I’m going to call her doctor, and the undertaker.”

            We did both, and she ended up at O’Brien’s Funeral Home. Jack O’Brien was running the family business, and in the way of all undertakers was solicitous and kind. His real name was John Fitzgerald Kennedy O’Brien because he was born on November 22, 1963, and his mother thought it was a fitting tribute to the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.

            The O’Briens had an indoor pool, and poor Jack fell into the pool one day when it had been drained for repair. My mother used to say he was a goodhearted boy. She often said that about pleasant students who worked hard but weren’t academic stars. “I’m not sure I want to go to O’Brien’s when I’m dead,” Mom said, more than once. “I don’t want the O’Brien boys looking at my naked behind.”

            “You won’t care,” Dad always said. “You’ll be dead.”

            “I’ll be there in spirit,” Mom would reply.

            I thought of that as Jack O’Brien talked to us fondly about Mom. He said he remembered that every Friday she’d tell them stories about Ireland and England and Rome, or sometimes she would tell them ghost stories or legends from the upstate coal town where she was born. She always thought seventh graders would get bored with story time, but hers became legendary.

            “Don’t worry about the picture,” Jack O’Brien said. “I’ll make her look like she did when I was in seventh grade, and she told us the mystery of the ninety-nine steps. I’ll never forget that. I don’t think I slept for a week.”

            “That was one of her favorites.” I remembered the ninety-nine steps. We even visited them when we went to visit some of our relatives “up state.” They did lead to a cemetery, but in the daylight with small houses on each side, they weren’t terribly frightening. When my mother talked about them, they became shrouded in fog and mystery, with murderers on par with Jack the Ripper lurking in every shadow.

            We shook hands and left, and Jack O’Brien kept his word. On the day of the viewing, my mother looked twenty years younger. In her red suit and crisp white blouse, she looked beautiful. I was glad for my father because at least his last memory would be a good one.

            We went to the church and waited. Mass was supposed to begin at ten; the guests were seated. The organist, a friend of my father played some mournful piece. I wished he would play Chopin’s funeral march because it would have amused my mother, but he didn’t. I don’t remember now what he played.

            One of my mother’s most adamant last wishes was for a piper.

            “I want a piper, and I want him to play McIntosh’s Lament,” she said. “Not Amazing Grace. They all play Amazing Grace.”

            My husband said he’d arrange it. I hoped the piper knew McIntosh’s Lament. I shifted my son in my arms while my daughter peered out the church door.

            “Can’t we sit?” she asked.

            “We have to wait for the casket,” I said.

            “When is that coming?”

            At 10:15, we decided to sit. We walked to the front of the church and wondered what was happening. The priest approached us as discreetly as possible and said, “We have another service at 11:00.”

            “She’s right next door,” I said. “I don’t know what the problem is.”

            A 10:19, Jack O’Brien and his men rolled the casket through a side entrance. No time for pallbearers. They wheeled the casket into place, and Jack came over to whisper, “I’m so sorry; the wheel jammed, and we couldn’t move it. I didn’t have another–”

            “It’s fine, Jack,” I said. I almost laughed. I thought, my mother’s late for her own funeral. It’s fitting. It was her way of having the last laugh. It cheered me immensely even as I wiped away the tears. “Thank you for everything.”

            We zipped through the ceremony. In a way it was a mercy because my father looked as if he was about to fall over. We had used my parents’ old church so the pastor gave a lovely talk about my mother’s many virtues. It was brief and to the point.

            After the ceremony, the pallbearers at last got to lift the casket. At that moment the air filled with the unmistakable sound of the bagpipes. A piper had emerged from the back of the church in full kilt, and he played a mournful tune that, if it wasn’t McIntosh’s Lament, was surely someone’s. My husband had arranged the piper who knew his stuff.

            I followed the casket out along with my children into the sunlight and wondered if having a real Irish piper made up for Jack O’Brien seeing my mother’s naked behind.