by Jo-Anne Rosen
Though we’d known about each other over twenty years, we didn’t meet until that afternoon in the hospital when Alice burst into the room and dropped into the chair opposite mine. On the bed between us lay my husband, Frank. His jaw hung open and his breath was raspy.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“To say goodbye to the father of my son.”
“He won’t want to see you now.”
“What do you want to bet?” She stared at me.
I was too furious to reply.
Frank opened his eyes, looked from one side of the bed to the other, and flashed us the cocky grin I loved before he slipped back into sleep. His breathing grew more regular and he lay still with a beatific smile.
We watched him closely for a while, but nothing changed.
At last, Alice said, “I bet he thinks he died and went to heaven.”
I glanced at her. She was smiling, but the smile trembled, and her eyes glistened. I began to giggle and cry, and whenever I managed to get a grip on myself, I’d look at Frank lying there like a saint in ecstasy, and lose control again. Alice and I made such a ruckus, laughing, snuffling and hiccoughing, the station nurse popped in to make sure we were okay.
I wiped my eyes. “Let’s get a cup of coffee.”
After Alice left the hospital, Frank regained consciousness.
“I dreamed you and Alice were here together,” he murmured.
“We were,” I told him. “It wasn’t a dream.”
“That’s all I ever wanted, babe, the three of us together.” He beamed at me, a close-lipped smile.
“Really?” I was appalled.
He was quite feeble at that point and not always lucid. Looking deeply into my eyes, he said, “Everyone should, you know, love everybody. Isn’t that right?”
“Do you still love Alice?” I whispered, but he didn’t hear me, and I didn’t really want to know.
After that Alice and I got along fine. Of course, she came to Frank’s memorial service, where she regaled us all with hilarious stories of his youthful adventures. I began to grow fond of her.
“Bernice and I are like family,” Alice tells everyone.
And like family, we have our differences.
It really irked me when she announced she was applying for Frank’s Social Security, too. Though I’m legally his widow, she was convinced she had earned a portion of the benefits. Maybe she had. Frank wasn’t always easy to live with. There were times I’d have cheerfully sent him back to her. Finally, their son talked her out of it.
“If you need money,” Stanley huffed, “ask me for it.”
Alice dumped Frank before I met him, and not for the first time. They’d both played around for years. He told me about everything, including their occasional trysts during the first year of our marriage. He thought she’d been titillated by our happiness, and I was sure she’d wanted to sabotage it. He never could say no to her, or anyone, for that matter. Sometimes I wonder if he did tell me everything.
Although he looked like the librarian he’d been, pale and bookish with drooping shoulders, Frank had a reckless, wild streak that attracted not only Alice and me. He rode a bicycle without a helmet in rush-hour traffic until he could no longer walk, much less ride. In the sixties he was assaulted by police at anti-war protests and jailed. Beneath the serene facade he presented to the world, he was passionate and volatile.
Only with him near me, the heat of his skin against mine, did I feel truly alive. Unlike Alice, I can’t imagine being with any other man.
I’d been widowed several years when Stanley found affordable housing for me and Alice in the same senior apartment complex. He calls us Mom 1 and Mom 2. We see him and his kids not even once a month, about which Alice complains incessantly.
From my balcony I can see the low mountains that ring the Sonoma Valley and, if I’m up by sunrise, a pink and magenta-stained sky outlining the peaks. Frank would have loved the view. No doubt, he’d also have enjoyed being let loose among the many widows in the building.
Alice phones me every day, as often as she calls her son, who also calls me, chiefly to whine about his mother. I know he’s relying on me to watch over her. She no longer has a car or driver’s license. Even with those thick glasses she can’t see well enough to navigate safely with the walker from her apartment to mine. She does anyway.
I drive her everywhere. We go to the hair salon together, I take her grocery shopping and to medical appointments. Some nights I drive her across town to the Loyal Order of the Moose lodge where Frank had been a member, and I’m still in the women’s auxiliary. We drink Margaritas in the lounge and she flirts with anyone in trousers. She snaps the red suspenders of the former fireman who’s a regular at the bar. “Put out any fires lately?” she quips, and he chuckles but looks uneasy.
Alice totters over one afternoon for a cup of tea. She looks into the porcelain cup, as if reading the leaves.
Apropos of I have no idea what, she says, “I’ll never be too old for a good fuck.”
“Who’s going to want an octogenarian in his bed?” I ask.
“Bernice, honey, you’d be surprised.” She smiles mysteriously. “Besides which, I’m only 82.”
That’s a lie. She’s at least 85.
“You’re delusional,” I tell her.
“What do you want to bet?”
“Twenty bucks,” I say. “Now, how are you going to prove it?”
She puts a hand over her heart. “You wouldn’t take my word for it?”
“No way, Alice. You’re a lying hound.”
She laughs. She loves it when I talk a little rough. Otherwise, I’m too “namby-pamby” for her.
A few days later, she calls to see if I’ll take her to the Indian Gaming Casino one town up the road. She loves to play the slots plus she’s got a two-for-one dinner coupon for the Chinese restaurant.
“You can’t stay home every day and mope, girlfriend.”
“I’m not moping.”
“Maybe we can pick up some guys,” she says.
That has to be a joke.
I put on a pale blue summer dress with spaghetti shoulder straps and check myself in the mirror. Not bad for an old broad, still trim. I wish I had Alice’s skin, though. I’m ten years younger and my face seems older than hers.
Frank used to say, “Your face is a map of your life and it’s a beautiful map.”
Alice is waiting for me in the clubroom, seated on her walker at a table, entertaining the only two single men in our building who are mobile.
She is still a looker. It’s those high cheek bones and that olive-brown, self-moisturizing skin that sucks up wrinkles, a curly mop of silver hair and the hooded eyes with whites showing under black irises. She’s wearing a deep purple-burgundy rayon pants suit with matching lipstick and gold hoop earrings.
“You’re gorgeous,” I tell her. I don’t point out the grease stain on the blouse. She can’t see it, and it would be a hassle getting her into another spot-free outfit, if one even exists.
“You, too, Bernie,” she trills. “Just like an Impressionist painting.”
I say hello to the two Jacks. Old Jack and Young Jack is how we distinguish them, or sometimes Tall Jack and Short Jack. The Jacks are known around Harmony Villa as womanizers, which interests Alice. They are her kind of people.
Tall Jack is long in the tooth, lean and rickety; likely older than Alice, with an eye for younger women. He has hit on me already, to no avail. Poor dear, he’s always alone. And now he’s using a walker, too.
Short Jack is sixty-something with a shock of white hair and bright blue eyes. We don’t see him much during the day; he’s a night owl and a musician. Now I remember Alice saying he’d told her older women make the best lovers.
I may have already lost my bet.
“I can’t trust my eyes anymore,” Alice says. “What do you think, boys, isn’t Bernie lovely in that outfit?”
“Exquisite,” says Old Jack, always the courtly gent.
Young Jack looks me over. “The color could be brighter,” he says. “And why are you wearing a sack? You’ve got a good figure.”
Alice crows. “Just what I try to tell her.”
“Let’s blow this pop stand, Alice,” I say, exasperated. No opinionated jackass is going to tell me how to dress.
“We’re off to the casino,” Alice says. “Wish us luck.”
Old Jack looks wistful. He doesn’t drive at night anymore. Young Jack flexes his fingers.
“I’m playing the Sky Room in the casino,” he says. “Stop on by at happy hour.”
Once Alice is buckled into the passenger seat and we’re on our way, she tells me, “Jack has a gig. He’s a one-man band.”
“What kind of music?”
“I don’t know. But Cole Porter it ain’t.”
“We can check it out if you’d like.”
“I plan to.” She sighs. “He sure reminds me of someone.”
“Frank, only better looking. He’s got that edgy energy. Know what I mean?”
I shrug. “He seems to be available.”
“I’d like more of a challenge. He’d be too easy.”
“Like you’ve got other options?”
Alice doesn’t respond. We don’t exchange another word until I park the car and unfold her walker from the trunk.
“Thank you,” she says. “Now, let’s go raise some hell, little Miss Priss.”
I hate it when she calls me that.
Although all but one room in the new casino are allegedly smoke-free, the entire place reeks faintly of stale tobacco smoke, except for the restaurants and lounges, which are sealed off from the gaming area. The restrooms are also clear. I can tolerate the air for a half-hour before my head starts aching and I nip off to the Ladies to soak my face in cold water. It doesn’t bother Alice at all. She used to smoke a pack a day, which is why her voice is husky. I leave her happily staring at the slots and when I return, she hasn’t budged. She wins $42 and calls it quits. I’m out $26.
“Dinner’s on me!” she cries.
But first she wants to check out happy hour at the Sky Lounge.
The lounge is full of gamblers soaking up half-price cocktails and live music. A sign at the entrance reads, “Jack Evans One-Man Band.” I’m surprised to find both Jacks there. Young Jack’s at the mike, strumming an electric guitar and crooning a Beatles tune.
Old Jack’s face lights up. He beckons us to his table.
“I’m a roadie now,” he tells us, looking pleased. He explains how they used his walker to transport speakers and other equipment.
Young Jack presses a pedal with one foot, twists knobs on a console. It sounds as if several musicians are playing with him. He is wearing a bright orange t-shirt, a dreadful color, I think. Yet I have to admit, it looks good on him.
We order the half-price cocktails. Tall Jack is drinking a tall Pilsner, which he sips slowly. When our drinks arrive, he raises his glass. “Here’s to lovely ladies and the pleasure of your company.” He beams toothily at us.
I sip my gin and tonic slowly, too. But Alice downs hers and orders another. And another. I order guacamole and chips.
“You’ve got to eat something,” I say.
“Don’t rain on my parade, Miss Priss. I need this buzz.”
I turn away and say nothing. Frank told me about her alcoholic tantrums, and Stanley had let me know both his parents binged, screamed at each other, broke dishes, and slapped or punched each other, too. At least they didn’t hit the kid.
Old Jack is looking mildly alarmed. He’s still working on his first Pilsner.
On his break, rock star Jack joins us.
“You’re really good,” I tell him.
“You’re hot,” Alice slurs.
“Thank you, ladies.” He smiles warmly at me, not her, and my heart lurches. Damn him, he does remind me of Frank. My Frank.
Alice puts an arm around his waist and a cheek on his shoulder. “You’ve been holding out on us,” she burbles. “Who knew there was so much talent right under our noses.”
“It’s good to be appreciated,” he says with a grin.
“I’ll drink to that,” says the ever hopeful, older Jack.
I’m about ready to jump out of my skin. Alice is an embarrassment. Even worse, I’m embarrassing myself, though I don’t think anyone else has an inkling of what “Miss Priss” secretly desires.
“Oopsie.” Alice has scooped up guacamole with a chip and somehow plopped it onto the orange t-shirt. She dips a paper napkin into a water glass and rubs at the spot on his chest, obsessively. It’s still green.
“Crap!” He frowns and pushes her hand away. “I don’t have a replacement shirt.”
“Play bare-chested,” Alice says. She looks like she could eat him with a spoon.
“They’ll never hire me again,” he says, and moans at the stain. “This is a classy joint.”
“I’ll give you the shirt off my back,” Alice says. “We can swap. You like purple, right?”
He looks at her blouse, shakes his head. “It’d be too tight and it’s stained, though not as bad as this.”
Alice looks down at her own chest, then over at me, annoyed.
“What about mine?” Old Jack says. We all look at his shirt, Hawaiian with pineapples. “I’ll be fine in my undershirt.”
“Not bad,” Young Jack says. “It’ll hang on me, but it’ll do.”
“Hold on,” I say. “I’ve got another idea.” I get up and hurry over to the bar. The bartender nods, goes into the kitchen. She returns with a bottle of white vinegar.
“Take it off,” I tell him. “You’ll smell like vinegar, but it’ll get rid of the stain.”
When he removes the t-shirt, I can read Alice’s mind, maybe because it’s reflecting my own. Nice pecs. Jack Evans is sitting in a nightclub, bare-chested, like that’s normal. Head high, hawk-nosed, proud.
I take the t-shirt into the Ladies’ bathroom, apply vinegar, scrub and soak judiciously. The green stain subsides to pale orange. Back at our table, it passes muster. Our rock star is grateful. He’ll hold the guitar over the damp spot till it’s dry.
He launches into the next set and winks at me while singing. I wink back, why ever not? Then I rub my eye as if something had flown into it.
Alice is watching me, not him.
“What are you up to?” she hisses.
“We should get some dinner soon,” I tell her. “Chinese food, remember? I’m starving.”
“Bitch,” she mutters. “Alright, let’s go. I’m bored. This music sucks, anyway.”
To my dismay, she stands up in the middle of a song and heads for the door, the walker clattering noisily.
“I’ll stay here and hold down the fort,” Old Jack says. “I had dinner earlier.”
Sorry, I mouth to Young Jack. He is concentrating on a beautiful guitar solo and doesn’t see me. I hurry after Alice, who is already in the casino, trundling off in the wrong direction.
In the restaurant, I read the menu to her.
“What is this horse shit?” she asks.
“It’s a, quote, eclectic mix of East Asian cuisines,” I say. “How about some sushi rolls? Or black bean basil clams?”
“Jeez, how about a cocktail with chicken chow mein? That coupon includes a drink, right?”
“Whatever.” I sigh. I order her a Casino Royale and chow mein and select a couple of interesting starter dishes plus a pot of tea.
She drums her fingers on the table and glares at me. “So what were you up to back there?”
“I was trying to be helpful. Some people are grateful.”
“Helpful? Sure. Like it helped when you scooped Frank up, huh? It’s the same old bag of tricks, only now you’re an old bag, too.”
It’s useless to argue with a lunatic, especially a drunk one. But if I let her attack me, there’ll be no end to it.
“In the first place, you had already left Frank in the dust when I met him. In the second place, well, there is no second place. You’re welcome to both Jacks. I’m not playing that game.”
“Like hell you’re not, Miss Priss. I know you better than you know yourself.”
I ignore that.
“And in the third place,” I say, “why must you always bite the hand that feeds you? You abused Frank for years and, now that he’s gone and you can’t get at him, don’t think you can get away with trashing me instead.”
She splutters. “I don’t know how Frank put up with you. He always said you were holier-than-thou.”
I feel my face heat up. Could he really have told her that?
“I’m sick and tired of dealing with you,” she says.
“Fine with me,” I reply calmly. “I’m not required to do diddly squat for you. We’re not even related. Go and pick on Jack, either one of them. See where that gets you.”
The waiter reappears with our food and drinks, quickly serves us, and backs off.
We stare glumly at the plates. Alice pushes noodles around with a fork.
“I’m not hungry,” she says. “You are such a downer.”
I’ve lost my appetite, too. Why do I put up with this woman?
Because I can’t look at her without thinking of Frank, and without her I might begin to forget.
I take a deep breath. Someone has to be the adult here.
“Try this calamari, Alice. It’s delicious. It was one of Frank’s favorites.”
She takes a bite, shrugs. “Fried food is what killed him.” A baleful glance says it was all my fault. But I won’t let her rile me up again.
“Could be,” I say lightly. “You know there’s no stopping some people in their quest for perfect pleasure.” That was one of Frank’s favorite lines, often repeated.
I serve her another portion of chow mein and pour us both cups of jasmine tea. She doesn’t take the hint. She drains her cocktail and signals a waiter with the empty glass. I had no idea she could drink this much and remain upright, and at her age. At least she’s eating something. I begin to wonder how I will get her out of the casino and into my car.
She puts her face close to mine and says in a confidential tone, “Perfect pleasure? What poppycock. Between you and me, Bernie, wasn’t Frank a perfectly sanctimonious asshole?”
“He was no such thing.”
“He sure was. Stuffed full of ideas, doing nothing about them but blab. All hot air.”
“Can we discuss this when you’re sober?”
“No,” she says. “Being sober is bad enough. Come on, Bernie, for Christ’s sake, have another drink. This isn’t an AA meeting.”
“I’m the designated driver,” I say.
“Designated driver!” She mimics me in a high, fluty voice. “Why don’t you get a life?”
“I have a life, and I plan to keep it intact as long as possible.”
“Alright, Miss Priss, you do that.”
I stand up abruptly. “I’ll be back,” I tell her. “Don’t go anywhere without me.”
She looks at me, bewildered. I turn and stride out of the restaurant into the casino where I pull out my cell and call Stanley. He doesn’t pick up. I leave a voice mail: “This is Bernie. I’m at the casino with Alice. Can you come and get your mother before I murder her? She’s stinking drunk.”
He doesn’t return the call. Later, when it is no longer an issue, he texts: “Call Uber.”
I peek into the restaurant at Alice in profile, stooped over her drink and looking anxious. I know she doesn’t like being alone for long. I take a few deep breaths. I’m about to march back in there when I spot an arm waving at me from across rows of slot machines. It’s the pineapple shirt. Old Jack weaves his way toward me at a fast clip with his walker. I never thought I’d be so glad to see him.
“Just want to make sure you gals are alright,” he says, towering over me.
“I’m fine. Alice is sloshed. She won’t listen to me. But she’ll listen to a man.”
He studies her for a moment through the glass, nods. “What do you need me to do?”
“I have to get her home. Maybe Gentleman Jack can escort her to my car?”
“Sure can. But here’s another idea. She can be a roadie, too. We’ll kill two birds with one stone.”
“What two birds?”
“Evans is packing up his gear. We were thinking two walkers are better than one. If we all pitch in, we can get everything out of there in one fell swoop, and we’ll get Alice home, too.”
Alice is thrilled to be a roadie. “And a groupie, too,” she says, giggling.
She pays the bill and we follow the pineapple shirt back across the casino to the Sky Lounge where Jack Evans is wrapping up cables and piling equipment in one corner.
“Ladies,” he says “it’s good to see you again.” His smile is dazzling.
He and I do most of the heavy lifting while over the PA system drifts the light baritone of Frank Sinatra singing “September Song.” Old Jack takes Alice in his arms and dances with her until the walkers are loaded and ready to roll. Thus distracted, she grows more amiable by the minute. What a nice man, he is, I’m thinking. It’s too bad. Most women don’t want nice; they want dangerous. That would be the other Jack. That was Frank.
We go out to the loading area in front of the casino where Alice and Gentleman Jack wait with the equipment while Musician Jack and I head for the parking lot to fetch our cars.
“I appreciate your helping out,” he says.
“It’s you who’s helping me. I’d still be watching Alice downing Casino Royales. I’d be calling 911.”
“That is one crazy woman.”
I say nothing in response. Strangely, I feel defensive. Alice may be crazy, but also, despite what I told her in the restaurant, she is family.
He walks me to my car and waits while I unlock it and get in. I roll down the window.
“You okay to drive Alice home?” he asks. “We could swap passengers.”
I consider this. “You think you can handle her? She might attack you.”
He laughs. “I can strap her in real good.”
Just as I’m thinking, oh let Alice have her way with the lad, he puts his head in the window and we look at each other in the eye for a beat or two.
“Whatever it is you need, Bernie, let me know.” His voice is a melodious tenor; it’s the voice of temptation, the snake in the garden.
Though I desire this man, I don’t trust him. His attention is flattering, but not what I need. What do I need? Not to rock the boat, surcease of sorrow, to love and be loved.
“Okay,” I say briskly and turn the engine over. “You take Alice home. I’ll take Jack. We’ll help you unload.”
He straightens up. “Aye aye, captain.” He salutes me with a hauntingly familiar grin.
We pull up in front of the casino and get out of our cars.
“All aboard for Disharmony Villa!” Jack Evans cries, and Alice laughs so hard she sprays spittle on everyone. And she doesn’t care. She never cares about anything.
Jo-Anne Rosen has published fiction in over two dozen literary journals (among them, The Florida Review, The Summerset Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel, FlashFiction.net, Spank the Carp). She is a book and web designer living in Petaluma, California. She publishes Wordrunner eChapbooks, an online hybrid chapbook/journal (at http://www.echapbook.com) and co-edits the Sonoma County Literary Update (http://www.socolitupdate.com). What They Don’t Know (2015) is her first fiction collection. See http://joannerosen.us for more information.