NOTE: This story was written for the 2017 NYC Short Story Challenge. The assignment was to write a story of no more than 2,500 words. The genre was mystery, a major character had to be a thief, and the plot had to involve food poisoning. I am expecting a decision on March 20 whether this piece will elevate me to the next level.  

ADD'L Note (3/22/2017): This story made the cut, chosen as one of the top 20% in a pool of 2,500 writers from around the world. My next assignment comes on 3/23/2017, a 2,000-word short story to be written in 72 hours. 

 

The last of the forty-four families in the Rincon Ocean View community, living side-by-side in luxury homes along the Pacific, had departed for the funeral.

 

From his vantage point, Ray Stehlen watched through binoculars as the cars left, lots of BMWs, Cadillacs, even a Mazerati or two.  He noticed that all the residents had set out their trash containers for the Friday pick-up, even though Columbus Day the previous Monday meant the trash service would be a day late.

 

Ray updated the plan in his mind. As he finished burglarizing each home in the exclusive enclave—cash, jewelry, small items—he would place the haul in double-ply plastic bags on the top of each container’s contents, then close the lid. Then a quick drive down the road to pick up the loot and toss it in the back of the battered work van he’d purchased last week. As a burglar, Ray switched cars as often as possible.

 

Ray had a formula, based on home prices on Zillow, and factoring in fifteen years as a professional thief, to give him a calculation:  Forty-four homes, at an average take of $21,500 per home, equaled $946,000. That would be a chunk of money for his nest egg.

 

The opportunity surfaced in an article in the Los Angeles Times ten days earlier. Newspapers were good for stories that might lead to a job. Each year, on the first Saturday in October, the residents of Rincon Ocean View held an end-of-season party. Live entertainment, catered food, face painters, bounce houses for the kids.

 

But this year was different. By the next morning seventeen-year-old Ricky Gorr, a popular kid in the community, was dead. The cause, according to the Times, food poisoning from listeria-tainted ice cream. Four other people were sickened, but survived.

 

Ray took an interest. Rincon was the name of the Spanish family that settled the area hundreds of years ago. The surfers just called it the Rincon. Ray had camped nearby as a kid and he knew the area.

 

Another piece in the Ventura County Star profiled Ricky as an honor student, quarterback of the football team at St. Augustine Academy, captain of the golf team, and the youth representative on the Homeowners Association. Everybody who knew him, including the entire Rincon Ocean View community, was attending the church service, funeral and after-gathering at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa.

A plan started forming. Ray made a phone call.

 

"There’s valet parking for the after-gathering,” said the concierge. “We also suggest dropping off your golf clubs when you arrive. The tournament begins at one o’clock.”

 

“Tournament?” Ray asked.

 

“The First Annual Ricky Gorr Memorial Golf Tournament,” the concierge said. “Only a handful of spots left, and a waiting list for the banquet afterwards.”

 

God bless California, Ray thought.

 

Ray coasted the van down the unpaved service road, passed under the freeway, then stopped under a tree a few yards off the access road. He’d spent the last four days parked on different service roads in different rented cars. He’d mapped out the community, observed which entry each resident used to get in and out of their homes, and looked for oddities. Ray prided himself on being a finesse burglar. No forced entry. His high school job working for a locksmith, an engineering degree, and six years designing business and residential security systems gave him the knowledge he needed. He relied on handmade lock picks and a bag of electronic widgets to bypass any alarm detected by his scanner. His backpack also contained a roll of trash bags, duct tape, and latex gloves.

 

His appearance was also an asset, 5'-9," 160 pounds, with chestnut brown hair. Ray was clean-shaven today, but he could grow his beard out quickly if needed. He looked like a thousand other men.

 

Ray crossed the road on foot. No vehicle meant less chance of detection, and an easier escape if need be. He was over the wall and through the front door lock of the first home in seconds. He’d budgeted ten minutes for each house. If he scored big in less time, then it was on to the next.

 

The master bedroom is ground zero for valuables. People of means hide enormous amounts of cash in suit coat pockets, abandoned purses, old tennis shoes. Within minutes Ray had $3,000 cash in the trash bag.  Next was the jewelry. Ray recognized the flip-up top of the dresser. He lifted it, anticipating Rolex watches, diamond rings, more.

 

Nothing.

 

Ray saw the imprint of rings and necklaces, broaches and other items, but everything was gone.

 

Thousands of hours in other people’s homes had taught Ray that when the loot wasn’t there, he cut his losses and moved on. On his way down the stairs he spotted a water color landscape by a famous Southern California artist. It went into the bag. It was worth a grand from a dealer in stolen art that he’d started working with.   

 

The next house looked better. An envelope thick with hundred dollar bills in the freezer, and two thousand in a purse in the master bedroom closet. The jewelry cabinet was a standalone. Ray smiled. Standalones were the best.

Nothing.

 

Again, the imprint of jewelry that had been there, but now gone. Ray had seen this before. Another burglar had been here before him, probably in the last two months. Someone less experienced, who didn’t know where cash was hidden, or the value of art, but they could find the jewelry.

 

The third house was a gold mine. Ray attributed this to the security system detected by his scanner. His predecessor was unfamiliar with how to overcome these barriers. Ray bypassed the system with a set of alligator clips. Seconds later he was standing before a brimming jewelry box.

 

There were two walk-in closets, his and hers. In the first, Ray found a purse with $2,000, maybe $3,000 in cash. Then another $5,000 in the suit coats. Along with the jewelry, including three Rolex watches, Ray was only a few thousand shy of where he should be, and seven minutes ahead on the clock.

 

Something was off, though. Men’s and women’s clothes in the same closet. What was in the other closet?

 

The room was empty save for a built-in table across one side, and three boxes underneath, two smaller ones atop a larger one. The larger box was perhaps twenty inches square. Suspecting more valuables, Ray opened the smallest box. Glass plates and some other instruments, spoons and such.

 

The shipping label on the larger box read, “Portable Laboratory Incubator.” The third box contained a microscope, a nice one.  Ray realized the plates in the other box were petri dishes.

 

Someone’s science experiment, he thought.

 

Back downstairs, Ray took another pass through the kitchen. On the counter was a packet of papers he’d ignored the first time. It was the minutes from the homeowners’ association board meeting, dated a month earlier. Ricky Gorr was listed as an attendee. Each name had a corresponding address. Ray was in the home of the president of the board. He cross-referenced his sketched map against the addresses on the minutes, marking each board member’s home.

Underneath was a magazine, California Educator. The homeowner was a science teacher, he surmised.

 

Fifteen more homes confirmed Ray’s suspicion about the fellow before him. Those with only locks were picked clean of jewelry, but the cash was there. For those homes with alarm systems, there was lots of cash, lots of jewelry, and more art.

Ray reached the nineteenth home twenty-two minutes ahead of schedule. His map showed this was the Gorr residence. The kitchen counters were covered with casserole dishes and desserts from sympathetic neighbors. The dining room table was a shrine to Ricky—a senior class photo, letterman's jacket, trophies—set up for visitors to come and pay their respects. Ray couldn’t resist checking out the boy’s room. More photos, posters of athletes and rock n’ roll groups. There was a desk covered with school papers. There was also a paycheck stub. Ray stopped short when he read the employer's name: Ventura Lock and Key.

 

“Jesus,” he said aloud.

 

There was a brochure from the Bourns School of Engineering at UC Riverside, and a letter thanking Ricky for his interest. Bourns was Ray’s alma mater. He looked at another class photo on the desk. It was as if he was looking into a mirror. He sat down on the queen-sized bed. He felt something rub against his shoe and heard the clink of metal, expensive metal. Ray pulled a bulging pillowcase from under the bed. He knew what was inside, but he opened it anyway. Jewelry—rings, bracelets, necklaces, watches—all high-end stuff.

 

Ray had found the other burglar.

 

“Jesus,” he said aloud again. “This kid was just like me.”

 

Ray considered leaving the already-stolen jewelry out of respect, but the thief in him won out. The pillowcase contents pushed him well ahead on the running total. He’d wasted precious time though, down to six minutes ahead of schedule.

 

The next sixteen homes had the same pattern, but now Ray had a lot of the missing jewelry. The art, though, proved to be an unexpected bonus. After each house, Ray made the trek out to the trash can to deposit it for easy pick-up.

 

Nine homes left, mid-afternoon, and Ray was back up to twenty-five minutes ahead of schedule.

 

The next home was another member of the homeowners’ association board. The name was Middle Eastern, which often meant expensive gold jewelry. The house also had a security system. Ray was in for one of his larger scores. He bypassed the system, hurried upstairs, and found a double-wide, standalone jewelry cabinet.

 

Over the years, Ray had developed an eye for real diamonds. He was seldom wrong. This lady had three diamond rings and a diamond tennis bracelet.  There was also lots of nice gold—18 and 24-carat stuff.

 

The last drawer in the cabinet jammed when Ray tried to pull it out. Once he got it open, he realized the source of the jam was a packet of papers. The top page screamed at him.

 

Listeria Monocytogenes: Cultivation and Laboratory Maintenance.

 

Listeria. That’s what killed Ricky.

 

Ray skimmed through the printout, recognizing words and phrases. “Incubator.” “Sterile culture flasks for test tubes.” “Sterile BHI agar plates.” Those were the same as petri dishes. It was a primer on how to grow listeria.

 

“I’ll be goddamned,” Ray said. “They figured out he was the burglar and they killed him.”

 

“The burglaries had nothing to do with it.” The voice was calm, sophisticated.

 

Ray had rehearsed this over and over in his mind. What do you do if someone is in the house you’ve broken into? If they have a gun, sudden moves could get you shot. Ray turned. Standing in the doorway was a sixty-ish man of Middle Eastern extraction. His blue tracksuit did little to hide his paunch. His bushy gray hair was uncombed. He looked tired, the flesh hanging loosely on his face. It was not a physical exhaustion, though. He was mentally tired. He also had a gun, a small automatic pointed at Ray.

“Are you the police?” the man asked. “Do you have a warrant?”

 

“I’m not the police,” Ray said.

 

The man’s eyes went to Ray’s latex-gloved hands, then dropped to the plastic bag at his feet.

 

“You’re robbing us?” he said.

 

“If this were a robbery, technically I’d have the gun,” said Ray. “I’m a burglar.”

 

“And you’re stealing from my house?”

 

“I’ve been working my way down the beach.” Ray found that the truth was always the best tactic in these situations, especially when there was more truth. “We have a stand-off here, though. I’m a burglar, but it looks to me as if you’re part of a murder.” Ray waved the papers for emphasis. “I’ve been through thirty-six houses. I’ve seen the evidence. At least two of you were involved in planting listeria in Ricky’s ice cream.”

 

The man dropped the gun to his side. “Ricky broke into the home of the treasurer of the homeowners’ association. He hacked into the computer and found we were skimming from the association.”

 

“How much did you take?”

 

“Over four years, maybe a quarter-million, not that much. We all have more money than we need, but it was there and nobody would be the wiser. Ricky wanted two hundred thousand in hush money.”

 

“Why are you not at the funeral?” Ray asked. He was aware of a noise in the background, outside on the street, several doors away. 

 

The man moved away from the doorway, sat in a chair and sighed. The gun dangled loosely. “I told my wife I was sick, which is the truth. I can’t live with what we did. I’ve already written a letter.”

 

“You’re going to kill yourself,” Ray said.

 

“I was until you walked in. You’re good. It cost eighteen hundred dollars to install that lock.”

 

“Did you implicate the others in your letter?” Ray asked.

 

“I didn’t, but they’ll figure it out. The biology teacher grew the listeria. We blended a spoonful of the stuff into Ricky’s ice cream, a big dose to make sure it was enough to kill him. We gave a few other bowls a small sprinkle so it looked realistic.

 

“You don’t want to kill yourself,” Ray said.

 

“Are you turning me in?”

 

“I could,” said Ray. “The kid reminds me of an early version of myself. But I’ve got a problem. I’ve uncovered everything because I’m in these homes illegally. I’ve never been to jail, and I’m not starting now.”

 

Ray motioned to the gun, “May I?” The man nodded. Ray took the gun, pulled out the magazine and ejected the round from the chamber.

 

Now that the gun was out of the equation, Ray was able to focus on the noise outside. It was closer. He recognized the groaning and grinding of hydraulics and an engine. It was a trash truck.

 

“I thought they weren’t collecting the trash today!” Ray said. “The website said so. It was Columbus Day on Monday”

 

“You believe everything you read on the internet? We got a letter from the county last month. They made Columbus Day a floating holiday. They can use it anytime. Trash gets picked up.”

 

At the window Ray pulled aside the curtain. The trash truck was one house away. Thirty-five cans had already been emptied into the back of the truck.

 

“You had better leave,” said the man. “I need to make a phone call, turn myself in.”

 

Ray ran into the street, but years of instinct and discipline told him to get in his van and drive away. Ten minutes later, southbound on the freeway, three sheriff’s cruisers blew by in the other direction with lights and sirens. They would have a busy night.

I think the characters in fiction need names that have meaning, and as I write short stories, I often don't want to expend the energy thinking about names. Thus, I have come up with a series of short stories about a married couple named Luke and Myrna. I've written several stories about this couple, and if you try to plot out the events in their lives and the kids they have based on the short stories, you'll get lost. There is no relationship. Just enjoy the stories, realizing that Luke and Myrna are different people from one story to the next.

 

Greeting cards were too much pressure for Luke. One chance to write your message and sign your name. The same was true of the envelope. If you screwed up either one of them then your alternatives were either crossing it out—which looked cheesy—or buying a new card—an expensive option. So when Luke rushed to address the card to Suzzanne and Tony instead of Suzanne and Tony (with one z, which was the way she spelled her name) it only confirmed his discomfort about dropping by the anniversary party.

He should have sat down at the table and signed it when he bought the Starbucks gift card, he thought. Taken his time and not been in such a hurry. Instead, he rushed and signed it in his car in the parking lot of the market—asking to mess up. Maybe it will go unnoticed. She must get her name misspelled all the time.

It was one of those Saturdays when he and his wife Myrna had to be in thirteen different places at once—shopping and soccer games and visiting his mother. The next day was Easter Sunday, with much to accomplish. Added to that, Luke was doing the prep work for taxes—tedious number-crunching stuff—and he found himself looking for excuses not

to do it.

“I’ll drop by the party for a few minutes,” Luke told Myrna that morning as they were planning out the day. They were eating bran muffins and drinking coffee in the kitchen. He paged through the newspaper and Myrna brushed out her shoulder-length dark hair. The Southern California breeze carried her scent across the table—honey and lemons and something stronger, almost wild—a scent he experienced on their first date so many years ago and of which he once thought he would never grow tired. He used to roll over in the morning and lose himself in that scent.  

In the last year he had not stopped to savor it as much. They had not stopped to savor each other as much. They still did the same things, but something was missing, as if they were both preoccupied, thinking other thoughts.

“It’s not like we know them that well. They are a little older than our kids.” Luke said. Their oldest had just turned thirty-one.  “I’ll stay long enough to be polite. I have to get back and work on the taxes.” Myrna didn’t say anything, which surprised Luke, and relieved him, too. Suzanne was a looker—a tall, dark and sleek Latina with a styled pixie haircut and a penchant for dressing to show off her shoulders and arms. She was affectionate, a hugger and a kisser, always standing closer than normal.

If Myrna was there she would have her claws out. The one time she had met Suzanne, Luke could sense his wife’s radar jump to high-alert status. His explanation that Suzanne was the webmaster for one of his clients—that he had to work with her—was little consolation.

Myrna was engrossed in a shopping list. Luke thought that the prospect of having family over the next day would trump any concerns she might have about younger women.

Not quite.

 

“Do what you want,” said Myrna. “Suzanne’s cute, but her husband will be there and it’s an anniversary. I won’t have to worry about you too much.”

 

* * *

The happy couple chose a wine bar for their celebration. Luke got out of his car and crossed the street, blemished envelope in hand. He heard the music—Come Together by the Beatles--only a jazzier version. He recalled something on the emailed invitation about how Suzanne’s husband Tony was in a new band and they were playing for the party. At the client meeting last week she said this was a more traditional band, which explained the forty-year-old Beatles song. Tony played in another band, too, which Suzanne described as alternative beach punk. Whatever that was.

 

The wine bar shared its patio with a cigar store. The aroma of high-dollar stogies—Romeo & Juliettas, Arturo Fuentes and Dunhills—filled his nostrils. Luke didn’t smoke cigars as much as he used to, but he remembered the subtle variations in bouquet from one to the next.

Suzanne sat near the entrance to the patio, sharing a wrought-iron table with some other people.  Luke was glad Myrna had not come. Suzanne wore a tight-knit halter top that bared lots of cleavage. It would be difficult to greet her in her accustomed way and not touch considerable amounts of bare skin.  Luke tucked the envelope into his beltline in the small of his back. She saw him and got out of her chair. She wore shorts, very short ones, and sandals with a heel on them. You could see lots of leg and they were shaped just right. Luke kept his sunglasses on.

She opened her arms for the expected hug. Luke was nervous about the embrace, about wrapping his arms around her. He placed a hand on either shoulder, her skin cool and smooth and soft. Luke felt her lips against his cheek—a hot, moist press against his skin. It was sensuous and it lingered. Her boldness surprised him. Looking beyond Suzanne, Luke could see Tony, her husband, as he leaned into the microphone for another verse.

The hug ended and Suzanne leaned against the pillar behind her. Luke almost didn’t realize she was talking, what with the loud music. He bent over close to listen, and even so he caught only a few words here and there. Being a band wife, and probably a band chick before that, meant she was used to years of shouted conversations. The effort to hear put Luke’s line of vision directly into her cleavage. He turned his head, hoping it looked like he was trying to hear Suzanne better, but mostly he wanted to get eyes away from her boobs. As he did so, he scanned the crowded patio for familiar faces, for someone to sit with. Nothing. Luke hoped the pillar blocked Tony’s view of him seemingly leering at Suzanne’s breasts. 

There was a pause in her conversation, or at least it seemed to Luke as if there was. He pointed to the door of the bar and mimed a motion. He needed something to drink, was the message he hoped he conveyed. Suzanne nodded.

 

The kiss had unnerved Luke. He could still feel it on his cheek, the air conditioning inside the bar accentuating the remnant moisture. Was Suzanne wearing lip gloss? He had not noticed. He wiped his cheek.

Luke hoped for iced tea. He didn’t want wine. He had little will power for numbers and the calculator at home and he didn’t want alcohol robbing him of it. Inside, the bar was polished wood and rustic looking. There were no stools. The purpose of the place was for wine tasting and they didn’t want folks parking themselves there. An interior window behind the bar opened to a view of the wine store. Luke had been in here once or twice before. He knew the room was full of stacked boxes, some of them open to show the bottles, packing material artfully arranged to make it look as if there were discoveries to be made.

Commerce was brisk and Luke waited his turn. He wasn’t there long, perhaps thirty seconds, when he felt someone sidle up to him on his left, pressing up against his body. Expecting Suzanne, he looked and saw only a woven straw cowboy hat. Then the brim tilted up to reveal a woman in her thirties, long, straight hair past her shoulders, fleshy but nice looking, with freckles and a moisture in her hazel eyes that told Luke this was not her first trip to the bar.

She smiled. “I was thinking about another glass of wine, then I saw you walk in here. A good-looking guy like you. I didn’t need any more convincing.”

Wow, thought Luke, I am in the wrong place. This has get-the-hell-out-of-here written all over it.

He smiled and nodded. “I’m hoping for something non-alcoholic. It’s a little too early in the day for me to be drinking.” Luke placed his left hand palm down on the bar, tapping his finger so his wedding band rapped against the wood surface.

 

“Oh, come on, the house Bordeaux is a good one.” She slipped her arm into the crook of his and snuggled closer.” Luke caught a wave of perfume. Something strong, as if it had just been sprayed on. Luke also caught another smell, the same but different. Perhaps an earlier application of the fragrance, only this one mixed with perspiration and wine. She pulled herself closer. So much for the wedding ring Morse code. Luke found himself thinking of his single days—decades ago—when he would have thought nothing of a one-night stand with a woman like this.

The bartender appeared, interrupting his thoughts. Did they call them bartenders in a wine tasting room? Luke’s wine knowledge was limited to knowing that a cork was better than a cap, and from what he had heard, not even that was true anymore. “What can I get you?” he asked.

“Do you have any iced tea?” Luke leaned to his right and turned his head as if to hear better, but his real goal was to dislodge the arm still hanging on his.

 

The bartender motioned towards the wine store part of the building. “They have a cooler in there with water and soda. Not sure if they have any iced tea.”

 

Luke saw an opportunity to shed himself of his newfound friend. He disengaged their arms, smiled and headed for the store. The lady in the cowboy hat stepped into the void he left, taking her place at the bar. Another glass of wine was more important that he was.

The bartender was right. There was no iced tea and a limited choice of soda. Luke settled for a two-dollar bottle of water that sold in the supermarkets as part of a case of twenty-four for $4.99. The price of his escape.

Back outside on the patio Suzanne leaned over the railing, taking a photo of her husband, a guitar strapped around his shoulders. He wore Panama hat and sunglasses. Luke wondered if that was his stage persona or his usual attire. They had met once or twice before, but he couldn’t remember anything beyond the dark, shoulder-length hair and a trimmed beard. Again, Luke scanned the patio, hoping he had missed a familiar face the first time, but there was no one. Suzanne leaned even farther forward, snapping photos, the short shorts getting shorter, revealing more. Luke felt a hand on his side.  The lady in the cowboy hat sidestepped behind him and sat at the table, making eye contact and smiling. Luke looked at her, then to Suzanne.

That’s my cue, Luke though. The cowboy hat is a message that I don’t belong here.  

Luke was across the street almost to his car when he felt the bind of the envelope in the small of his back. He’d forgotten to give it to Suzanne. He had walked around the entire time with it tucked into his belt line. No worry, he thought. He could give it to her at the client meeting on Monday.

 

Luke looked back at the crowded wine bar. He had ten years on anybody there, and he was only fifty-eight. Then his sense of not belonging was replaced by a stronger feeling, one of indignation.

How long were they married, anyway?  Eleven years was the number Luke remembered from the emailed invitation. Eleven years is nothing in a marriage. Their kids weren’t even teenagers yet.

Suzanne and Tony. They had no idea what those war years held for them. The attitudes. The defiance. The angst of kids defining themselves in a screwed-up world. If they got lucky the added bonus of drugs and alcohol and girls smuggled into the bedroom would pass them by. The oldest of their three children was ten, the youngest five. This marriage was bordered on the edge of decade of kid rebellion. Those years that had really tried Luke and Myrna’s union. A few times their future had been doubtful.

There would be other challenges, too—lost jobs, career changes, aging parents, friends who get sick and die, other friends who die with no warning. Lots of shocks and disappointments. Luke knew that he and Myrna were not connecting the last year or so, but they still had a bond. They had gotten through that crap.

Then Luke remembered that he had not said good-bye to Suzanne. How rude of him. He listened to the thump-thump-thumping of the music. Was he being old-fashioned? Was it that kind of party? Would her bare shoulders and arms and plunging décolletage even miss him. Luke ran his finger along the edge of the envelope with the misspelled name. It’s time in storage had left a crease.

Suzanne was done taking photos. She sat back at the table where he’d first seen her, talking to the lady in the cowboy hat. Luke had not noticed her sitting there earlier. Then again, he had not noticed her at all until she’d shoved her boob into his armpit at the wine bar.

Luke wanted to get Suzanne’s attention, but with the music, the only ploy was to touch her again. He brushed the back of his hand against her shoulder. Suzanne turned and fixed her eyes on him. She was drinking wine, too, but she didn’t have the glow of her tablemate.

Again, the music made conversation difficult. Luke mouthed the words, “I have to go.” To ensure that Suzanne got the message, he feigned a strained, apologetic look and jerked his thumb towards the parking lot. An expression of understanding came to her face. Luke handed her the envelope with the card. She looked at it, ignoring or not seeing the misspelled name, surprise on her face. She rose from the chair to hug him. Luke had no choice but to place his hands on the bare shoulders. No place else to put them. Again the lingering kiss on the cheek. He relaxed the embrace and Suzanne stepped away.

Luke became aware of another presence—a younger man, closer to Suzanne’s age, short brown hair, clean shaven, in a white t-shirt and jeans. He also touched her shoulder, the same one Luke had brushed, and her gaze went to him. Luke could tell by his body language that he was also saying farewell. Suzanne reach up and hugged him, and he was surprised to see her give him the same kiss.

It caught Luke off guard. He looked down and made eye contact with the cowboy hatted girl. She looked at Suzanne’s back and shrugged, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s the way she is.”

Luke slipped away. He hoped his exit was unnoticed. Walking back across the street, he keyed Myrna’s number into his cell phone.

“How was it?” she asked. Luke was listening for the catch in her voice. Good thing she wasn’t there this afternoon, although her presence would have subverted a lot of what happened.  

“One of those experiences that reminds of you how old we are, how far these kids have to go.”

“Think about how far a woman has to go,” said Myrna, “to be as seasoned, to put up with you.”

Luke spent the rest of the Easter weekend in mild unrest about the anniversary party, and his wife’s reaction to it. He told Myrna about the experience with the lady in the cowboy hat, in a way he knew she would see the humor.  He didn’t tell her about Suzanne’s bare shoulders or the kiss on the cheek—his cheek or the other fellow’s cheek. She wouldn’t see the humor there.

Late Sunday afternoon Luke finished the taxes. He was relieved, it may not be as bad as he thought. Myrna suggested a walk.  They strolled along the new bike trail for more than an hour, holding hands a few times, but mostly just walking side-by-side. Luke sensed that whatever had left them this last year was coming back, if only to peek over their shoulders before deciding upon a complete return.  

When they got home he checked Facebook.  There was a posting from Suzanne, accompanied by a photo that looked to be from their wedding:

 

Happy anniversary to my darling husband Tony. You still take my breath away. I love you. 

 

Maybe she’s just a flirt, Luke thought. That’s her natural way. Still, there was unrest within him. He couldn’t identify it, other than it was there and its presence felt unreasonable. Then, before he went to bed Sunday evening, he was plugging in his phone for an overnight charge when he noticed the texting icon. There were two messages. He keyed up the first one. It was Suzanne.

Thank you so much for the nice card and gift. BTW, my name has only one Z. Made me         laugh. When we first met Tony always spelled my name wrong. I told him I would not marry him unless he got it right. Also heard you met Beth with the cowboy hat. I had to set her straight about your married status.

 

Beth. Now Luke could put a name to the exchange.

           

The second text was from Myrna.

 

Hey, why don’t you pour a couple of glasses of wine and meet me upstairs. I’m in bed waiting for you.

 

Luke pulled the cork on a bottle—even though a cap was just as good—and poured two glasses. By the time he got upstairs, however, Myrna had fallen sleep watching television, propped up against the pillows, and blanket pulled to her chin. Luke set the glasses on the dresser and turned off the TV. When he pulled back the covers, though, he discovered his wife was naked. She opened her eyes and giggled. 

“Let’s cuddle first,” she said, rolling over on her side.

Luke slid into bed and lay against her like a spoon. He reached around and cupped one of her breasts. This was the position in which they slept. Even if they were annoyed with one another. Despite the recent tension between them, he would still awaken in the morning squeezing that breast. He wondered if, after thirty-three years of marriage, his fingerprints might be a permanent fixture on that soft skin.

After a minute Myrna murmured and snuggled closer. That was his signal. Before he did anything, though, Luke paused and inhaled deeply of the scent of her hair.     

There couldn’t be a better place to work in the supermarket than the bakery section, as far as Myrna was concerned, especially once they put out tables and chairs and started serving coffee in the morning. She enjoyed the rush of commuters stopping for one last shot of caffeine and a muffin before getting on the freeway, and the local wags would sit and gossip for hours. Then they moved the discount rack to a spot next to the bakery, another source of entertainment. It drew the odd assortment of bargain hunters—folks looking for day-old breads, holiday foods, dented cans—the things nobody wanted.

 

Mike, a wiry old guy who was there every morning when the doors opened at 6:00, would head straight to the rack, searching for deals. Even though it was Southern California, he wore his trademark winter cap, with the flaps that he turned up when he came into the market so he could hear. Mike was a small man, maybe five-foot-six, with a big round nose, and ears that stuck out at right angles. All you saw was his cap and ears gliding behind the bread shelves, looking like a floating weather vane.  Mike was the king of corny jokes, too, and he always stopped to share one with Myrna.

 

“I got one in honor of your divorce,” he said. “Have you heard about the new doll—Divorce Barbie?”

 

“No, Mike.”

“Yeah, she comes with all of Ken’s stuff.”

Myrna groaned. “Where do you get these?”

 

“Off the intercom.”

 

“The intercom?”

 

“Yeah, I get on the intercom every morning. They even have a site for divorce jokes.”

 

“You mean the internet.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. The internet. Whatever. Here’s another one. What’s the difference between a Hawaiian vacation and a divorce?”

 

“What?”

“The vacation lasts a week, but you’ll always have the divorce.”

Myrna’s concentration kept her from laughing. She was working on a wedding cake that called for fondant icing, which Myrna loathed. Rather than spreading it, like regular icing, the sugary fondant came in thin sheets that you draped over the cake, wrapping it around the corners and over the edges.  

“Enough for today,” said Mike. “They got sardines on clearance. Lots of protein. Eighty-eight years old and I’m still walking two miles every day. Hah.”

Myrna grimaced at a crease in the fondant and made a mental note to camouflage it with an icing flower. She pushed back her hair, which had crept out from under her cap. Myrna used to be a redhead but during the last year of her marriage she’d gone back to her natural brown, even though Colleen, the morning baker, had said the red complemented her green eyes.

     

“You realize he’s trying to help,” said Colleen, as Mike shuffled away. “I wish I’d had someone like him when I was going through my divorce.” Myrna’s marriage to Luke, a senior planner at City Hall, would not go down as a great one, but she missed him. She was hoping the negotiations over her share of his pension might turn into a reconciliation. She had even bought a new dress to catch his attention at the next appointment. She knew she was deluding herself.

 

“How long were you married when you got divorced?” Myrna asked Colleen.

 

“Thirty seven years,” her co-worker said.

 

“I don’t know how you did it,” said Myrna. “We were married twenty-four years. Luke wasn’t the ideal husband, but this is killing me.”

 

“In my case I was afraid that bastard might live another thirty-seven years,” said Colleen.

 

That one made Myrna laugh. Colleen was retiring in two months. Myrna would miss her.

 

“Have I told you the latest?” she asked Colleen.

 

“What’d the son of a bitch do now?”

“His girlfriend decided Tiffany is her new best friend.” Tiffany was Myrna’s twenty-one-year-old punk-rocker daughter, the youngest child. Mother and daughter had moved into a rented condominium when the marriage ended. Luke remained in the home they shared when they were married, which went on the market last month. The older daughter, Heather, 24, was a wannabe hippie in Portland. When Myrna told her about the divorce, Heather said, “It’s about time. You only got married because you were knocked up with me.” Kids really know where it hurts, Myrna thought.

“She thinks Tiffany is her besty?” said Colleen

 

“Can you believe it?” said Myrna. “She told Tiffany that Luke bought her a new set of boobs.”

 

“Oh, that’s original,” said Colleen.

            “Yeah. The moral of the story is don’t use a doctor who advertises online with a coupon for a thousand dollars off. Now the boobs hang. The nipples are pointing to her toes, and they’re lumpy, too.”

Colleen spent the rest of the morning chuckling over that one.

           

Myrna was the early-morning cake decorator, so her shift was over at noon. Colleen gave her a hug when she left. Myrna got her purse in the back room and caught site of herself in the mirror. Colleen had followed her in.

            “Did the red hair make my butt look smaller?”

            “It’s hair dye, honey,” said Colleen. “It doesn’t work miracles. Besides, your backside looks good for a woman of forty-four. I just thank the Lord for those Kardashian hussies. They may be sluts, but they brought big butts back into style. Now it’s fashionable to have a little junk in the trunk.”

 

Mike didn’t come to the store on Sundays. He and his wife Clara went to church. They used to sing in the choir, but gave that up ten years ago when the new director increased practice sessions to twice weekly. “Too much for us old farts,” Mike said. But he was back Monday with another divorce joke.

“What do you do when you miss your ex-husband?”

This one caught Myrna off-guard. “What?”

“You take better aim.”

Myrna groaned. Mike must have sensed that he had overreached. He leaned over the counter, his voice little more than a whisper, “Are you okay?”

Myrna left morning cake orders and crossed to the counter. “I’m good, Mike. I just have some bad days.”

 

Mike surprised her by reaching over and touching her wrist.

 

“Hey, we’re like a little family here and we help each other,” he said. “I know you’re down and it’s my job to help you through it the best way I know how. It’s a good thing for you that I’m a funny guy.” Mike winked and took his hand away. Myrna held back her tears until he was out of sight. Then they came.

           

 

It must have been slim pickings on the web for divorce humor, though, because on Tuesday Mike was back to his mainstream jokes.

 

“What did the mayonnaise say when someone opened the fridge,” Mike said, juggling two jars of pickled cauliflower, marked down 50%.

         

What?”

           

“Close the door! I’m dressing.”

Myrna was off Wednesday and Thursday, but Mike was there Friday, clutching a bag of pomegranates.

“Why was the baby strawberry crying?”

 

Myrna was laboring over an array of birthday cakes. “I don’t know, Mike.”

 

“His parents we’re in a jam.” As he walked away, Myrna heard the old man coughing. It’s February, she thought, I hope he got his flu shot.

 

On Saturday there was no Mike. The same for Monday and Tuesday. Myrna missed him. She also remembered the cough, and worried. Then she was off for two days. Wednesday she shopped and cleaned. On Thursday they met about the pension. Myrna’s attorney had prepared an affidavit describing how she had worked the first two years of their marriage—even though they had a newborn—so her ex-husband could finish his masters of public administration, thereby increasing his earning capacity. When Tiffany was born Myrna found it impossible to return to school and get a teaching credential. The question of the pension went from, “Is she entitled to any of it?” to, “What percentage?”

Sadly, the new dress went unnoticed. Luke also let it slip that he and the girlfriend had set a date to get married.

“At least he didn’t bring Droopy Boobs with him,” said Colleen when Myra told her the news.

“Have you seen Mike?”  

 

Colleen shook her head. “Not a trace.”

 

When Myrna got off at noon, she left her car in the parking lot and went for a walk. Mike had once told her where he lived—three blocks down the boulevard and turn right, a yellow Tudor-style house. The weather was brisk. Myrna wished she had worn a heavier coat.

It was a tree-lined street with no curbs or sidewalks. Nonetheless, the older homes were expensive. Myrna found the place easy enough. She was standing at the foot of the brick walk, deciding whether to go up and knock on the door, when a car pulled up and parked on the side of the road. The man who got out looked a little younger than she, wearing blue slacks and a tan jacket over a white polo shirt. Myrna took in the full head of brown hair and the closely shorn beard and surprised herself with the thought that he was handsome.

“Looking for someone?” he asked.

Myrna was caught off guard. “Uh, does an old guy named Mike live here?”

“That’s my grandpa,” he said, walking past her and up the walkway. “Come on. He’s inside with Grandma.”

Before Myrna could object, he opened the door and announced, “Hey, Grandpa, you got a visitor.”

Myrna followed him through the doorway in a daze. Mike was coming out of a room on the left—from the looks of it, the living room—wearing slippers and a cardigan sweater, holding a newspaper. He looked frail.

 

Sometimes people didn’t recognize Myrna without her apron and supermarket cap. It took Mike a second, then he grinned. “How did you find me?”

 

“You told me once where you lived,” Myrna said. “I was—I was worried about you.”

 

A woman came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. She had to be close to Mike’s age, but she looked good. She wore an apron over her grey skirt and white blouse.

“Clara, Clara,” Mike said. “This is Myrna from the bakery at the supermarket. See, I told you I was having an affair with a younger woman. She came to check up on me.” Then Mike took Myrna by the arm and leaned close.  “I had the flu.” His voice was little more than a whisper. “It was a bad one, but I fought it off.”

 

“Mike,” Clara said, nodding past her husband. “You’re forgetting.”

“Oh, my,” said Mike. “I have the manners of a hog. Myrna, this strapping young man is Jason, my grandson. He’s a comedian, not as good as me—but he does okay.”

Jason looked embarrassed at his grandfather’s bragging. Then his eyes came to rest on Myrna. He extended his hand and she took it. She chanced a look at his other hand. No wedding ring.

“Don’t listen to Grandpa,” he said.

“No, Jason,” said Mike. “You need to be a funny guy.  Myrna just got divorced. She needs to laugh.” Then to Myrna, “Jason has a stand-up gig next week. He’s going to be a hit. By the way, he’s divorced, too.”

Jason ignored his grandfather’s comment about his divorce. “The high school where I teach is having an open-mic night. My students will laugh because they want a good grade.”

Mike jumped in. “Jason’s really good. Listen to this. Jason, what to do call a fake noodle?”

“What, grandpa?”

  

“An impasta. I got another one. Where do sheep go to get their hair cut?” Then before anyone could ask: “At the baa-baa shop.”

Myrna felt a tug on her arm. “Come with me,” Clara said loud enough for Mike to hear. “The best way to discourage my husband is to ignore him.”

Myrna entered a spotless kitchen, filled with the most recent appliances. Whatever Mike did when he was working, he retired well.

“Jason’s lunch at the high school backs up to his free period,” Clara said, spooning mashed potatoes into a large serving bowl, “so he comes here to eat on Fridays. We always turn it into a dinner. We’re having meatloaf today. You’re staying to eat.”

 

“Clara, I would be intruding on your time with—“

 

Clara stopped, a spoonful of potatoes suspended in mid-air. “You have no choice in this matter.”

 

Myrna was staying for dinner.

 

“Mike is tickled that you came,” she said. “He talks about the people at the market all the time. I probably know more about your divorce than you do. People tell him everything.”

 

“Mike talks about you a lot, too,” Myrna said.

 

“I would hope so,” she said. “I’ve been married to that little pain in the butt for sixty-seven years.”

 

“Sixty-seven years!”

 

“Do you know that in all that time I’ve never considered divorce,” Clara said. “Not even once.” Myrna braced herself at the prospect of being judged. “But, I’ve planned his murder on any number of occasions.”

 

The meal was the closest Myrna had come to a family gathering since the end of her marriage. Emotions she had not felt in a while came creeping back. She caught Jason looking at her—twice. He caught her once, too. Then Mike, in another obvious attempt at matchmaking, asked Myrna if she had her eye on anyone now that she was free.

 

            That’s when she lost it. The words tumbled out. She couldn’t stop herself. Someone tried to say something soothing a time or two, but Myrna only used that as impetus to tell more. By the time she was done she’d told the entire story, drooping boobs and all.

 

Everyone at the table was looking somewhere else. Then Jason made eye contact.

           

“Just remember Myrna,” he said in a low voice. “There are two sides to every divorce.”

“Really?” she said, sniffing. “Really?”

 

“Yes. Yours—and shithead’s.”

 

It was quiet for a second, then Mike howled and slapped the table. “That was a good one, Jason.”

 

Clara swatted Jason with her cloth napkin. “I can’t believe you kiss your grandmother with that mouth.”

 

The rest of the meal was spent in small talk, tales of family history from Mike and Clara. After another ten minutes Jason looked at his watch. He had to be getting back. Myrna used the opportunity to say she had to leave, too.

 

Jason offered to drive Myrna to the supermarket. She pointed out her car in the parking lot and he stopped. “Hey, do you want to come to the open-mic night at the high school? I need a cheering section.”

 

“I wouldn’t be very good company,” Myrna said. “It’s too soon. I’m too miserable.” Jason nodded his understanding.

 

Myrna had the key in her car door when Jason tooted the horn and rolled down his window. “My grandfather comes to your market to look at the stuff on the discount rack, right?”

 

Myrna looked back at him. “That’s right.”

 

“And your ex bought his girlfriend some discount boobs that didn’t work out, right?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“So you could call them the discount rack. Get it—the discount rack.”

 

Myrna smiled, then reached into the side pocket of her purse where she kept a pen

and a small notebook. “Okay, that was a good one. Here’s my phone number.”

 
 
 

This short story was the second assignment in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The genre was Romance. The character was a Taxi Driver. The element was an Incurable Disease. The story, no more than 2,000 words, had to be completed and turned in within 72 hours. Results be announced at on May 2 at 9:00 p.m. PST. Unlike the first story, this time the field of writers has been whittled down to 500 of the best ones, so the competition is getting tougher. We'll see what happens. 

Out in his Prius taxi cab, Zack checked his cellphone. Wired magazine called again. They don’t give up.  Zack’s Silicon Valley bad boy days were behind him. His ex-partners, people he had thought of as friends, and his fiancé, whom he thought he loved, made sure of that. Zack had made a pot of money in the IPO of his start-up company, and more in stock options and a severance package, but he was out. Nobody wanted to read an article entitled, “Zachariah Lalos: Enfant Terrible. What’s He Doing Now?”

           

Besides, Zack was still reeling from the conversation with the doctor.

 

                                                              * * *

 

“Your Parkinson’s has become aggressive,” said Dr. Balsam.

“What’s next?”

“The tremors have moved to both sides of your body. You can expect involuntary body movements, dyskinesia, from the levodopa you’ve been taking. There is also freezing, a temporary paralysis.”

“Geez, doc. Don’t sugarcoat it. I also read about Parkinson’s psychosis? Hallucinations and voices.”

“You’re not that far along.”

“But it’s aggressive.”

“Parkinson’s is an individual disease, Zack, different for everybody.

“Still,” said Zack. “It doesn’t sound good.”

                                                              * * *

 

After the Silicon Valley debacle, Zack had returned to Southern California, spending four years as a beach bum. Then came the Parkinson’s diagnosis. He had exiled himself to the suburbs east of Los Angeles, driving a taxi. His Hungarian grandfather, fresh off the plane in 1946, had driven a cab. Zack figured he was completing the circle. He spent only what he earned, living like a monk in a one-bedroom apartment in Pomona. The bank statements sat unopened.

                                                              * * *

 

Zack shook off the conversation with the doctor. He had a fare waiting, and this one was the only thing he looked forward to these days.

He grabbed the yellow taxi cap, squared it over his streaked blond and brown hair, and pulled into traffic. Saturday was his day off, but he was the exclusive driver of Mara Avila, a substitute teacher in a school district a few suburbs over. Substituting meant getting called at 6:45 a.m. to make it to who-knew-what school by 8:00. Mara was legally blind, so to get around she had struck a deal with the cab company. For $250 a month she got unlimited rides. Zack figured she must be a good teacher. She got called every day. That, and school kids would cheer when they saw the cab. They knew it was Mara.  

Most Saturdays, Mara had breakfast with her favorite professor at Scripps College in Claremont. Then she ran at Pomona College from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. The retinitis pigmentosa that was taking her peripheral vision made running anywhere else difficult. She needed the predictability of the obstacle-free track to keep from falling. 

Zack pulled up to the track fifteen minutes early. He opened his laptop. Taxi driving had stimulated his creative IT juices. Watching ride services like Uber and Lyft inspired him to design something that would give the drivers in the yellow cars an edge. Zack envisioned a Silicon Valley comeback. He had scores to settle.

At least that was the plan until the Parkinson’s accelerated its siege. Now, Zack was looking at a website called Peaceful Pill, a primer on suicide. Nembutal looked good. You could get it from Mexico. There was also a death bag you tied over your head and filled with nitrogen pumped through a small hose from a canister. You were unconscious in seconds and dead in minutes.

                                                              * * *

 

The back door of the cab opened and a gym bag sailed across the seat, followed by Mara, her dark brown tresses pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a fine-boned, smooth-skinned face. Her beauty jolted Zack every time. Ten-years of failing vision had done little to blemish her. Mara excelled at compensating for her disability. Zack made up his own Yogi Berra-ism: Unless you knew she was blind, you wouldn’t know she was blind.   

Zack clapped the laptop shut.

 

“How was the run?”

“Invigorating.”

“Are you up for lemonade?”

“Absolutely!”

Last week Zack had asked her to coffee. Mara had ordered lemonade.

She had told of growing up in San Fernando, on the other side of Los Angeles, of blue-collar Latino parents and a grandmother from Mexico who had taught Mara to speak better Spanish than her parents. It was a close-knit family.

She dreamed of visiting Madrid, where he grandmother’s family came from, and the rest of Europe.  She wanted to walk the Puerta del Sol before she lost her vision completely.

The diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa came at fourteen. Despite the tunnel vision closing in on her, Mara had graduated high school as valedictorian. She was declared legally blind the next month. Undaunted, she applied to Scripps, one of the most prestigious women’s colleges in the country, and earned her degree in World History. Then she got a master’s in Education at Claremont Graduate University. Even with financial aid, and a partial scholarship, though, she had $155,000 in student debt.

“My grandmother grew up in the Depression,” she said. “She learned to make ten dollars and save twelve, a trait she gave me. That student debt grinds on me.”  

 

Zack found himself jealous of her family. He seldom spoke to his brother in Oakland or his sister in Escondido. He suspected they despised him for the money he never touched, and the way he’d acted when he was an egomaniacal IT genius.

                                                              * * *

 

This time Mara asked the questions.

“Are we on a date?”

“I—uh—haven’t figured that out yet,” Zack said.

“You don’t have a girlfriend?”

“Nope.”

“Ever been in love?”

“Maybe, I’m not sure.”

“Not sure?”

“It’s complicated.”

She laughed. “Not so much. Either you are in love or you aren’t.”  

Zack told her about Silicon Valley, but kept it light, afraid the bitterness would surface. He never mentioned the money. He also kept his hands below the table, fearing the tremors would return. He said nothing of the Parkinson’s.

     

Ninety minutes later Zack pulled the taxi up to the apartment Mara shared with two other women. She handed him an envelope for her cab receipts. She reconciled them every month to make sure she got her money’s worth. Zack slipped in a receipt, handed the envelope back, got out and opened her car door. He sensed that she was waiting for a kiss, but he lost his nerve.

“I’ll pick you up Monday morning,” he said, walking around to the driver’s door.

                                                              * * *

Two blocks away Zack pulled over. The tremors hit hard. It took thirty minutes to get his hands under control enough that he could drive.

                                                              * * *

 

That next week Zack picked Mara up each morning, delivering her to a middle school where she now had a long-term assignment. She couldn’t contain her excitement. She was doing well, assisted by an aide who did much of the reading. The school district praised her.

On Thursday, as Zach inserted the receipt, the tremors hit. It took three attempts to get the slip into the envelope. Once around the corner, he had to pull over. Forty-five minutes later the shaking stopped.

                                                              * * *

 

That evening Zack revisited the Peaceful Pill website.

                                                              * * *

 

On Saturday, after Mara ran, she got in and she made the suggestion.

“Let’s get a lemonade.”

She had news. A school district in San Diego wanted an interview. The principal at the school she substituted at knew the superintendent down there. He sent a personal recommendation.

“In September I’ll be full-time,” she said. “I can work on paying off my loan. There’s even a program for teachers to forgive part of the debt.”

“You’re legally blind, Mara,” Zack said. “You could have taken Social Security and kicked back, passed on college, lived an easy life. You chose the hard way. Why?”

Mara looked offended. “It wasn’t the hard way,” she said. “I did it the only way I knew. My grandparents came to this country under the Bracero Program, and they got resident status. My parents finished high school and had to go to work and bring in money. I benefitted from their labors. I owe it to them, and to everyone, to pass on my good fortune.  I may not see as well as others, but I have a vision of a better life.”

“What about Madrid?”

“Madrid can wait,” Mara said. “Once I get the job, I’ll have to move to a new city, get a new driver. That’s the hard part. I’ll miss you.”

This time at her apartment, she didn’t turn for a kiss.

Zack had blown it.

                                                              * * *

 

The next week, Zack picked Mara up in the morning, and dropped her off in the afternoon. The trips were mostly silent. In the evening, Zack visited the Peaceful Pill website. He also looked at some new websites. A few he had to hack his way into, but he was still a Silicon Valley bad boy. They presented little challenge.

                                                              * * *

 

On Friday, Mara announced a visit to her parents for spring break, leaving that night on the Metrolink. Zack had already guessed that their Saturdays were over. When he slipped the receipt into the envelope, his hand trembled. He hoped Mara didn’t notice. He also hoped she didn’t feel the extra heft.

This was his last fare. The Parkinson’s was worsening. Besides, he had a plan.

                                                              * * *

 

On Sunday Mara visited her grandmother’s house in San Fernando. The old lady liked to help her with her cab receipts. Mara gave her the thick envelope.

Her grandmother opened it and gasped.  “Dios mio!”  

           

“What, Abuela?” addressing her by the Mexican word for grandmother. “Are you okay?”

Her grandmother held an unfamiliar packet of papers. Mara shuffled through them, looking at each paper one at a time, holding them close to her face—plane tickets, hotel reservations, travel itineraries—Madrid, and then all over Europe. She found another sheath of papers. She recognized her student loan accounts, but they were all zeroed out. No balances

There was also a note. “Read it out loud, Abuela. Por favor.”

The old lady’s voice wavered.

   

Mara,

I’m sorry about our conversation last week. I was trying to understand you, and my question came out wrong. I didn’t tell you my whole story. I got bumped out of Silicon Valley. I deserved it. I spurned friendships. I used people. I also made a lot of money. Millions of dollars. These last seven years, though, I’ve been so bitter, so mad. I let the money sit, collecting more bitterness, while I drove a taxi cab. I also left something else out. I have Parkinson’s disease. I’m getting worse, and it is happening fast. Too fast. But Mara, you are my hero. You have taken lemons and made lemonade. The least I can do is take your nobility and go back to Silicon Valley and mend fences, right wrongs. After Silicon Valley, I have a brother and sister I need to get to know. By the way, the development office at Scripps has $20 million bank draft for a scholarship fund. You need to set it up and sign the papers. Maybe you can name it after your grandmother. Both our diseases are incurable, but so is my love for you. I’m not sure I’ll make it back, but if I do, I’d like to meet you over a glass of lemonade.

 

Zack.  

                                                              * * *

 

Back in Pomona, Zack turned the cab into the garage and gave the dispatcher the keys.

           

“What’s this,” he said. “You’re a good hack. Don’t you drive around that blind girl?”

“I appreciate it,” said Zack, “but she’s moving on. Besides, I need to start planning the rest of my life.”

“Good thing I was dressed as The Undertaker,” said Brian. “Got me out of two speeding tickets.”

“You’re late,” the Kiwanis president looked frustrated. “Folks are already leaving. Wrestling’s not a big draw for business people.” The thin man was all angles, with a short-sleeve white shirt and bow tie. Brian smelled pharmacist.

 

“It wasn’t until I got to Surprise, Arizona, that I realized I was supposed to be thirty-five miles farther out in the desert in Sunrise, Arizona.” Brian knew the real reason for the confusion, though. It was the Percocet again. Last night, looking over his travel itinerary, sitting in a cheap hotel in Phoenix, he was stoned on the last of his stash. So much for two rounds of rehab. 

 

“You okay?” the Kiwanian asked. “You’re having a hard time walking.”

 

“I cramp up these days,” said Brian. After thirty years in the ring, thirty minutes in a Corvette was enough to cause him agony.

 

“Better straighten up. We have to be out of here by noon.”

 

Brian held up the boom box. “Can you play my entry music? No time for the fog machine.”

 

***

 

Minutes later, after applying his make-up, Brian was in hat and cape. These small-town goobers wouldn’t know that he was the fake Undertaker, or the cease-and-desist order from the real Undertaker. They wouldn’t know he was only an advance man for a third-rate group of broken-down, ‘roid juicing hacks calling themselves the Big Sky Wrestling Conference, one step ahead of bill collectors and ex-girlfriends armed with child-support orders. 

 

“… at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix next Saturday night you’re gonna see some amazing wrestling from top names, true athletes who ...”

 

“I thought you were going to be at the Veteran’s Memorial Stadium.” It was a teenager in the back wearing a Wrestlemania t-shirt, probably crashing the Kiwanis meeting because he heard there would be a wrestler speaking. “This flier says you’re gonna be at the Home Arts Center. What the freak?”

 

“We were all set at the Veteran’s Stadium.” Brian amped it up, giving his best Undertaker scowl. “Then Vince McMahon at WWE put the fix in. Ever since McMahon’s sister got a job with the Trump Administration, he’s been outta control. Shithead thinks he rules wresting.”

 

The Kiwanis president grimaced at the profanity. Time to wrap up.

 

“These coupons are good for half off admission at Rumblemania. Bring your friends.” Brian hit the button on the boom box, blasting out The Undertaker’s Funeral Dirge, another violation of the cease-and-desist order.

 

Brian stayed for autographs, but there were no takers, not even the teenager. Aside from the two sheriff’s deputies this morning, Brian hadn’t been asked for his autograph in years. He was leaving when the Kiwanis president came back in, now wearing a white smock. Brian had guessed right--a pharmacist

“Sorry about being late, doc.” Brian thought he’d try flattery.

 

“I’m a pharmacist.” Brian smiled to himself. “One of our members, Nonie, was the one who asked that we bring you here. Sweet old lady, retired teacher but she puts in two days a week at the Gila River Reservation high school, the other side of Phoenix. Turns out she’s a crazed wresting fan. Said you became The Undertaker when the real one was laid up. She’s over at Sunrise Memorial Hospital. They thought it was a heart attack. Turns out she was screaming so loud at a wrestling match on TV that she strained her larynx.

 

Brian was deflated. In 1994, the real Undertaker cracked two vertebrae in a match with Yokozuma, a 600-pound Samoan. McMahon and WWE, wanting to keep the Undertaker mystique alive, asked Brian, an unknown wrestler, to step in as an impostor Undertaker. The more upset fans dubbed him the Underfaker.  When the real Undertaker returned, WWE arranged a match where Brian was defeated. His contract was not renewed.

 

“Sure, Doc, whatever you need.” Brian continued the flattery.

“She’d appreciate it.”

 

“Hey Doc, I got a rotator cuff problem,” said Brian, “Got any Percocet?”

 

“You got a prescription?”

 

Brian put his arm on the man’s shoulder and stooped over for effect. “Geez, I left my script at home.”

 

“I need the paper,” he said. “You know, I looked you up on Wikipedia. It said you billed yourself as six-foot-eight-inches.”

 

Brian should have worn the lifts. If he stretched, he could clear a little over six-four. “Had a couple of vertebrae fused, Doc. Lost an inch or two.”

 

***

 

Brian parked his twenty-five-year old Corvette in the hospital lot. It was a small facility, but Sunrise boasted only 5,200 residents.

 

At the front desk, Brian was directed down a hall to all fifteen beds of the hospital. Brian found the woman’s room. He took a minute to put on the hat and wrap himself in the cape. An ache in his lower back told him that his ailing kidneys were again rebelling from years of steroids.

 

A nurse who came to the middle of his chest confronted him. Brian noticed that all the hospital people wore sunrise logos on their uniforms.

 

“I got a call you were coming,” she said, looking up with a set of brown doe eyes. “Thank God. Anything to shut this lady up. All she wants on TV is wrestling, and we can’t put it on because she starts screaming again.”

 

Brian gave her a wide smile. “I’m gonna be just a few minutes. In the meantime, I got a rotator cuff that’s killing me. Can you score me some Percocet?”

 

The nurse bit her lip and looked sideways, then smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

Nonie was looking out the window when Brian entered. Undetected, he bent over and placed the boom box just inside the door and hit the button. She turned at the music.

 

“The Undertaker has been summoned by his fans.” There was something familiar about the lady.

 

Nonie grabbed the plastic water jug on the rollaway tray and hurled it at the boombox, scoring a direct hit. 

 

“You son of a bitch. You’re the Underfaker! You’re a phony. I’d like to see the real Undertaker take you down with his Tombstone Piledrive. Now that was a wrestling move.”

 

“Mrs. Wilson,” Brian said.

The screaming continued. “You miserable mountain of puke!” A nurse—not the one looking for the Percocet, Brian noted—appeared.

 

“It’s me, Brian Lee Harris. I was in your junior and senior composition and literature classes at Urbana High School in Illinois. You’re Nona ‘Howl’ Wilson. You’re legend.”

“How do you know?” The lady’s voice dropped to little more than a growl. 

“Everyone knew the story about how you had kids over to your home in the sixties to teach Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Mrs. Wilson. How you took on the school board when they banned it because they thought it promoted homosexuality.”

The lady’s rage-twisted face softened. “Well, the school board were miserable mountains of puke, too.”

Brian lowered himself onto the edge of her bed. Someone had silenced the boom box. “Mrs. Wilson, what are you doing in Sunrise, Arizona?”

“Harold, and I moved here in 2006 after we retired.” Her eyes softened. “He died three years later. We never had children. It’s been wrestling ever since. That and teaching at the reservation high school.”

She paused. “You got a wrestling scholarship to Oklahoma State, Brian, and you were on the Olympic team. We were proud of you.”

“That was 1980, Mrs. Wilson. They boycotted the Olympics because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. I didn’t go.”

The woman closed her eyes and smiled, as if in recollection. “I had no idea you were the impostor Undertaker”

“The Underfaker was twenty years ago. It’s been downhill ever since.” Before he knew what was happening, Brian was pouring his life out. The stints in rehab, two failed marriages. Kids he didn’t even know. Angry ex-wives. A slow descent down the cruel pecking order of professional wrestling. The nurse had slipped out, unnoticed.

Brian spoke until his voice was too choked to go further.

       

“How old are you, Brian?”

“Fifty-eight.”

“You have a college diploma. It wouldn’t take much to get you a teaching credential. As big as you are, the kids would be scared to death of you, so that’s no problem.”

Brian nodded.

“Besides,” she said, “I need a project. The doctor says no more wrestling. Brian, will you get rid of that ridiculous hat and cape. I’m leaving here in a few hours and I need someone to push my wheelchair.”

Brian walked out of the hospital room fifteen minutes later to announce that one Mrs. Nona Wilson was ready to go home. The doe-eyed nurse patted her pocket and smiled.

“Got your Percocet.”

Brian looked at the sunrise logo on her nurse’s uniform. He decided it was his sunrise to a new life.

“What I really need is a Narcotics Anonymous Meeting. Do you have any here?”