by Paul Silverman
Paul Silverman's stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, Minnetonka Review, Worcester Review, Alimentum, Coe Review, Jabberwock Review, Eclectica, Hobart Online, Pindeldyboz, The King's English, Smokelong Quarterly, Laura Hird, The Pedestal, Adirondack Review, Dogmatika, Summerset Review, VerbSap, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon and many others. He has three Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and was shortlisted twice for The Million Writers Award. Find more at www.paulsilverman.com. This is his second appearance in Amarillo Bay.
On her ninety-fourth birthday, her ninth as a widow, Essie Lester was taken to her favorite Boston steakhouse, Fallon's, where she put away a twelve-ounce prime filet and mounds of garlic-mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. Eating on one side of her was her son, George, and on the other his wife, Marlene, who spent much of the dinner talking about the low-carb diet they had gone on to prepare for their anniversary odyssey to the tropics, the Big Thirtieth. They picked at their pale tilapia and exchanged eye-rolling glances, showboating for the waiter and busboy their envious pride in Essie's fabled genes. After dessert (death-by-chocolate cake for Essie and black decaf for George and Marlene), Essie spent an inordinate amount of time in the vault-like, walnut-paneled alcove which the restaurant touts as its "gallery" of vintage sports photographs, four walls crammed with old glossies of bygone local jocks, famous and obscure. Then the steakhouse valet brought around the car and George began driving them back to Essie's apartment house, a building for elders who could still take care of themselves. This meant no doctors, no nurses, just individual studio units, a dining hall, and an activities director for the bored and bingo-obsessed.
Right when the car reached the Sunnyfield strip mall, Essie spoke sharply from the back seat. "Georgie, stop here. I need to get vitamin pills."
George dutifully took a sudden right and entered the parking area. On one side of the mall stood an Osco drug store; on the other a Brooks. "Dear God," cried Essie, just as George pulled into a space near Brooks, "please help me, dear God."
Essie clawed at the seat belt, as though she had forgotten how to release it. Marlene wheeled in her seat and reached back. "Don't go to Brooks," Essie pleaded, her hands clenched in a prayer position. "I beg of you, don't go to Brooks. I beg of . . ."
George heard her desperation, and then some. He burned rubber fleeing the parking space and nearly scraped an adjacent van. "What is it, Mom. What's going on?" He raced across the parking lot and turned into a row near Osco"s. "I beg of you," Essie cried, "don't go to Osco. Please don't do this to me."
George hit the brakes. "Mom, what are you . . ."
"Go back to Brooks, Georgie, please, please. I want to get my pills at Brooks." As Essie spoke she made a fist and slammed it against her chest. Repeatedly.
George screeched into reverse and did exactly as she said. But when they reached Brooks, she only begged to go back to Osco.
Next morning, Marlene called all around for social services and succeeded in getting a psychiatric social worker to visit Essie in her apartment. The psychiatric social worker was a fat sect woman, swaddled in layers of near-black dress fabric and a voluminous dark head covering. Essie howled at the sight of her and threw her out of the apartment. Down in the lobby, the sect woman diagnosed George's mother as suffering from extreme agitated depression, and recommended an ambulance trip to the nearest hospital emergency room. There a psychiatrist recommended immediate admission to one of two mental hospitals in the area, Pemberton or Elmwood. They called ahead to Elmwood and began driving Essie there, but on the way she screamed and fought against her seat belt as though it were an attacking boa constrictor. "Georgie, please, I beg of you. Don't take me to Elmwood. Turn around, I beg of you. Take me to Pemberton."
Once Essie was admitted — to Elmwood, after turning around from Pemberton — she was assigned a geriatric psychiatrist, a florid Russian who had been trained in psycho-pharmacology at the Red Army medical school. Receiving George and Marlene in his office, he gave his analysis of the patient:
"In the calendar, she is ninety-four years old. In her body, she is seventy-four years old. In her mind, she is four years old."
Essie Lester became the oldest patient at Elmwood to receive electric shock therapy. That — and the Red Army doctor's cocktail of meds — jolted her out of her approach-avoidance loop. "She can go home," said the Russian, addressing the three of them. He was the tallest and Essie the shortest, by far. He averted his eyes when Essie glowered up at him, grinding her teeth. It was George and Marlene's second day back from the Big Island, and they were still tan, jet-lagged and deep in rum-punch torpor. "She can go," he repeated, "but someone has to give her her meds. There's quite an array of them."
"No big deal," said Marlene, yawning. "We can do that. Or we can get someone to do it."
"No they can't," hissed Essie, a very different Essie than the one that had melted down in the Sunnyfield strip mall. "I don't trust them, doctor. They left me here and flew away. You don't know what they're like. How sick they are. They can't even eat a Caesar salad. They sit there and pick out all the croutons."
Then Essie announced, "I'm ninety-four years old. I have my rights. I want to go to a nursing home. I can trust a nursing home."
The nursing home Essie chose was the sprawling Sinai Senior Life Center, and the roommate they gave her, Minette, was so frail and fluttery she reminded Essie of a moth. Although Minette could ambulate without high-tech assistance, her way of walking was to limp, hobble and cringe — it was the opposite of Essie's barreling style. Barrel was the operative word — Essie was shaped like one, while Minette was more like a dried flower petal. And the Russian psychiatrist's meds regime only made Essie barrel out all the more. The cocktail he designed for her included Zyprexa and Remeron, both notorious for packing on the pounds. Her hopped-up appetite made Essie a favorite of the people who did most of the heavy lifting at Sinai, the large Caribbean women who wheeled the residents from here to there, clipped their nails, salved their bedsores, set up their bridge tables in the common rooms, and peeled the foil from their afternoon ice cream cups.
"Live to eat — that's good" said Verena, the heavy-shouldered West Indian N.A., as she eased Essie out of the tub. "You know how to do it right, dear. Let the others eat to live."
The framed photos that Minette and Essie kept on the shelves above their dressers dramatized how opposite they were — in spirit as well as in flesh and bone. On Minette's shelf were her children and her children's children, and their children too — not an inch of wood left free of offspring. On Essie's was a photographic parade of herself when the shape was more hourglass than barrel. Essie crossing her lovely legs in a lush beach garden. Essie in a flapper dress cutting the rug. And in the very center, ensconced in an opulent frame, a nightclub photo of Essie and husband Irwin. Snapped in all likelihood by a cigarette girl, the vintage shot presents Essie as bubbling and bare-shouldered. But Irwin looks gray and strangled, as though oppressed by the tourniquet tightness of his neckwear or the tax forms throbbing in his head or the sleeve garters clamping the shirt beneath his so-bourgeois suit. Behind them, just outside the orb of the flashbulb, is one of those ghostly inexplicables sometimes seen in old snapshots: the hovering aura of a tall, muscle-rippling young man.
Too lithe and cat-like to be a bouncer.
Eighteen days after Essie became a Sinai resident, Sam Behr came after her. He did it in the outer dining room where hors d'ouvres were being served in conjunction with an afternoon performance of visiting student violinists. Consistent with his M.O., Sam went into a racing crouch and dialed up his wheelchair full speed, slamming on the brakes just inches from his target. He was cataract-ridden and had been known to miss, but this time he accurately calibrated the braking point. It was Essie that caused the trouble — she and her youthful reflexes and excess poundage. As if she had eyes behind her head, she sensed that he was bombing in on her, wheeled too aggressively, and fell hard on her face. Her nostrils spurted blood; a medical assist team converged with full paraphernalia.
"Dumb broad," said Sam, muttering on the periphery of the paramedical swirl. "What's she here for anyway? A psycho should be in the psycho ward."
Next day, Essie took all her meals in her room, and Minette stayed with her, feeding her spoonfuls of chocolate pudding and giving her the grapevine profile of Sam, whose sons and daughters wouldn't bring their mother along for visits because she had dementia, and every time she behaved like someone with dementia, Sam tried to slap her.
"Don't go by what he says. He'll say the worst things to you, that's his way. But he wants you."
Essie's eyes were black and her bandaged nose hurt every time she breathed, let alone spoke. She thought of Sam's goitered pop-eyes flaming as he bore down on her, and his dripping lips, glistening like calves' liver.
"I'm no fool," she said. "I know why he wants me. He thinks I'm the only one around here who can still boogie my woogie."
Minette's face went from moth-white to wine-red, but Essie felt good about what she had said. Being the big fish in a small pond was the way to go. It was the way to keep life really alive.
From the day of her fall onwards, Essie never went to dinner, mah jong, band concerts, or the mezzanine beauty parlor without a cane. As she explained to Minette just after her beak had healed, the cane wasn't to assist her in walking. It was to crack Sam Behr's skull if he ever overstepped his bounds.
Every time Essie looked at the old nightclub photo on the dresser she remembered a smell. It was rank and primal and succulent, the smell of a man who could knock you on your back and open you up without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Sure enough, this slam-bam aroma was not Irwin's. From her husband's pores she had inhaled Waterman's ink, stale eraser dust, fetid socks, foot powder and various Gillette cover-ups — six decades of it. He was a walking accountant's office, no more or less than everything his parents and teachers had expected him to be.
But Irwin had an interesting side — his client list. It held behind-the-scenes figures in the sports and entertainment businesses, small-time power brokers who lurked in the wings with their sneers and their cigars, biting off the brown tips and spitting them out to the four winds. One of these mini-Barnums was Harry Fein, owner of a piece of salacious real estate — the Golden Slipper — and a piece of the state's hardest puncher, King Belsky. In physique, hitting style and more, Belsky was the Boston Max Baer — he hooked and crossed to tear heads off, and he fell in love fast and hard.
The moment King and Essie met, they clicked. They were as fit for each other as a glove and a fist. There was, of course, the Irwin factor. But Irwin kept his nose in the books and his eyes on the numbers. Harry Fein, however, was a different kettle of fish. If he had a piece of King, he reasoned, why should King have — have all to himself — a piece of Essie?
As it happened, that vintage photo occupying the primo spot on Essie's Sinai Center dresser was only part of a much bigger picture. The shot had been snapped less than a half hour after an incident had shaken the nightclub walls. Backstage denizens cringed in horror as King turned on Harry, ferociously, like a lion turning on his trainer. He crushed the cigar and several of Harry's teeth in one swipe of his paw — an action born of pure instinct and absolute passion. What drove the fighter berserk was a glimpse of Harry jumping Essie backstage. Salivating like a rabid dog, Harry had leapt from behind a curtain, locked both hands on Essie's face and rammed his tobacco tongue down her throat.
After the incident, King hung around Essie just in case more protective action was needed. In the picture, he appears to be hovering over Essie at the table — an aura, manly and muscled, yet shimmering and ghostly. The effect was produced, no doubt, by his presence on the outer edge of the light-burst at the precise moment the shutter clicked. As for Irwin, he had that strangled look for one reason only: the imminent, choking loss of Harry's business, both the bucks and the clout. Like King, he witnessed Harry's onslaught from the shadows at the curtain's edge. It caused him to be alarmed about his wife — somewhat. But his alarm about the digits and decimal points was nowhere close to somewhat.
It was profound.
King Belsky never again boxed professionally — in New England or elsewhere. Harry obliterated him with the telephone. But the fighter did continue to train, for about a year, in a run-down hole of a gym at the end of the subway line, where has-beens and punchdrunks were the only denizens, a place so insignificant Harry Fein never came calling.
There was a day, a winter day when the afternoon dark came early, that Essie skipped bridge club. She grabbed a cab and rushed to the gym to help King, who was ten years her junior, clean out his locker. In a tight, windowless corner he towered next to her glistening from three rounds of sparring, beast and beauty in one perfect form. And the locker door was open too, and each breath Essie drew was so ripe with King, King, King, she desired only one thing on earth. To rip his trunks off.
That winter day was the last she saw of him. Years later she overheard Irwin mutter to a crony, "he's in a different state. Siberia. King is now King Shit."
One evening in the dining hall, Essie chose to linger over sponge cake and honey, but Minette felt faint and rode back up to the room. She tottered in, needing to pee, but what she saw in front of the toilet made her lose all footing. Just as the world went gray before fading to complete black, she managed to cry out and hit the fat, square HELP button on the wall.
By the time Essie returned, Minette had been revived; but Verena, the West Indian N.A., and three other strong-armed ladies were still patrolling the scene, trying to ease the terror in the adjacent rooms. The news had engulfed the corridors like a spreading fire. Widow assaulted — almost.
"I could have died of shock," Minette said. "Just seeing him there could have killed me."
"Seeing who, honey? Take a deep breath and tell Verena." As she spoke, Verena felt for Minette's pulse. Her nut-brown thumb seemed thicker than Minette's wrist.
"This huge man — he was like an ape. Standing over our toilet, unzipped. How did he break in here?"
"Probably he just wandered into your room, honey. They can do that, the forgetful ones. Maybe he just drifted away — then got off on the wrong floor, you know? Some do need more watching, the wanderers. What did this man look like?"
Essie stood on the sidelines listening to all this. But she didn't need to listen. Didn't need to look. The instant she had stepped through the doorway she grasped everything. Her nostrils opened, wide as two big eyes, and they were seeing twenty/twenty.
The King was back. He was on some floor in the Sinai Center — not Essie's, but somewhere. He may have lost his mind, but he hadn't lost his smell.
There was a spot in the central lobby where, rain or shine, the residents could come, wheelchairs rolling and walkers clacking. With their equipment they circled, wagon-train style, around a small man-made forest warmed by the light streaming through a pyramid of solar panels, the gift of a deceased philanthropist, none other than Harry Fein. Essie grumbled as she entered, easing up on the cane to double-time it by the bronze Fein plaque. Once she was in and seated it was okay. Not Florida, for sure. Not even Revere Beach. But warm and bright enough to bring back those leggy days of Coppertone and whiskey sours topped with juicy maraschino cherries, round and bright as little beachballs. Whenever Sam Behr rolled in — as he did on this particular day — Essie's out was Verena, who had a little beauty station set up over to the side. Verena even offered to do corn rows if any of the bluehairs would ever let her. "Just nails please," Essie said, coolly cane-stepping past Sam and extending a paw for filing and painting.
Verena began to untwist Essie's favorite polish, an Oriental red that recalled the old booths and lanterns in Ruby Foo's Den, a favorite haunt of Irwin's. But suddenly Essie's gaze was no longer on her cuticles or the little table with its brushes and mirrors. She was spinning around and looking everywhere but.
That smell. It was back. It hung in the humid, terrarium-still air of the sitting area, so insistent it yanked Essie's nose as though she had a metal ring in it. Soon her eyes found the place her beak was seeking — a Ficus in a far corner. There he stood, tall and straight as he used to stand, shoulders wide as she remembered. Even with the Ficus leaves in front of him, he stood out from the two dozen or so extreme elders for the simple reason that he was on his feet, unassisted. To Essie they all seemed beneath him, like old people who gather at the foot of a magnificent statue in the park — not to admire the statue or even notice it, but to feed pigeons and cackle at each other.
Essie left Verena twisting the polish and set forth, crouching like a huntress, towards the tree, the man, and the aroma. The closer she got, the more it seemed that King really was a statue, that time had calcified him. Through the leaves she began to make out more of the face, and here was where the years had done more damage than all his ring opponents combined. Everything drooped, even the wrinkles and the grayness, like the scarred hide of an ancient elephant. And the eyes, the flashing opals of yesteryear, they had the deepest droop of all. King's eyes seemed permanently fixed on the base of the tree, unable or unwilling to budge unless the tree budged. She wondered if he was capable of answering were she to speak, even though she felt completely speechless.
But why was he so fixated on the Ficus trunk, which was set in a wide white basin filled with earth? Now, even nearer, Essie saw something in the eyes that stirred hope — not a flame exactly, but at least a pilot light. It was enough to quicken the heart, and the step — and then something else moved, King's elephantine right hand. It rose from the side of his hip and drifted towards the front of his pants, where the left hand joined it. Fumbling together, the two big mitts unzipped the fly, and for the first time in so many decades Essie beheld it — that thing of his, built for a horse. For an instant, she was back in the locker room and ready to spring. But then King began to splash urine into the soil around the tree, pissing so placidly it was as though he were no more than the gardener, just doing what gardeners do. And for this innocence, Essie wanted to touch him all the more. He was, after all, ten years her junior.
In Essie's perfect world, King would have finished and turned to her. Instead, there was a new sound, angry and whirring, an engine revving at her back. She glanced left and saw Sam Behr shoot by her at max speed, liver-lips drooling. Something about that drool made her see Harry Fein's face right in Sam's, who had aimed his wheelchair at the Ficus like a motorcycle cop zooming in to make a bust. Just as King was shaking off, Sam shouted, so loud even the half-deaf ones perked up. He shouted, "You're a disgrace to the human race."
Sam repeated his cry, pointing his finger at King as though the finger were an official enforcer, a weapon that could shoot bullets and maim or kill. But King's attention was elsewhere — on a leaf or a piece of bark that seemed to amuse him.
Neither King nor Sam saw Essie grip her cane with both hands and raise it like an executioner's axe, high over Sam's head. But Verena did, and she raced over there with all her might — just a hair late.
What did you think? Please send us your comments, including the name of the work you are commenting on.