By Donna Lattanzio
“My name is Jean Sinclair, and I am one-hundred-six years old.”
“Nana, can you speak directly into the microphone, please.”
I shuffle in a bit closer to the coffee table that has the microphone on it. There are a bunch of pretty flowers on the table too. I don’t remember having seen those flowers there before today. From behind the lights and the camera, I see Maggie Bloom, once a ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet. Now, she can’t remember her own name. There’s Larry and Mary Lou and a bunch of others who live here at the Colgate Senior Residences.
The girl sitting opposite me is my great-granddaughter, Liz and she’s interviewing me for a show she’s producing or directing or something like that. Guess it’s a big deal when an old lady turns really old. Liz is a looker, just like her mother, my granddaughter. She reminds me of Jackie Kennedy, the poise, the twinkle in her eyes. But Liz is married to a woman, and I don’t believe Jackie Kennedy ever married a woman, but maybe she should have. She might have been much happier.
“Nana I was asking, did anything special happen on your birthday this year. Your one-hundred-and-sixth?”
“Oh yes, yes indeed. The President sent that lovely Camille Harris to visit me.”
“Sorry, Nana, but you do mean Kamala Harris, the Vice President, don’t you?”
Oh, shoot, there she goes again, always correcting me. How does she expect me to remember everything she tells me? I’m old, aren’t I?
I nod vigorously. “Yes, Liz, that’s what I said.”
“Okay, Nana. I know our audience is interested to know how you’ve managed to reach this year of maturity. Can you share some of your secrets with us? What you believe helped you to reach this age?”
I smile big and wide. I know what she’s expecting me to say…no red meat, lots of sunshine and vitamins.
“Well, Liz, my motto has always been two whiskeys a day, keeps the doctors at bay. And lipstick. Always wear lipstick.”
Everyone is chuckling. Liz is giving me the eye, the one where one of her eyebrow’s arches up nearly to her scalp.
“Okay, Nana, let’s talk a bit about your husbands. You have outlived three husbands. Share with us a birds-eye view into those relationships if you can.”
“Well, my first husband was Albert Grange. He was a nice fella, but I wasn’t in love with him.”
“Oh?” Liz interrupts.
“It was a marriage arranged between my father and Albert’s father. Some type of money changed hands. In those days they called it a dowry.”
Astonished, Liz asks, “So your father paid for Albert to marry you?”
I nod. Wonder why Liz’s mother hadn’t shared this slice of family history with her.
“What became of Albert?”
“We had a son, Robert, your grandfather. In 1931, Albert was killed while working on the underground passages that would become the New York City subway system. A steel girder had slipped…it was a sin…Albert being such a young man and all…”
“And Robert?” Liz asks.
“Robert was a ray of sunshine in my life. Smart, loving. Big as a bull and gentle as a sparrow. Not the way he looked when that nasty cancer took him from me way too soon. Your mother, Roberta, is named for him.”
“That’s so sad, Nana.” Liz reaches out to pat my hand. “Do you need to take a break?”
I shake my head, no.
“Well, then, what can you tell us about your second husband, Martin Sinclair?”
For a moment I cannot catch my breath. It’s lodged in my throat as if I have swallowed a chicken bone.
I clear my throat. “Martin Sinclair was the love of my life.” I hear the room quiet, hear my heartbeat in my ears.
I was a feisty little hellcat back then. Spurting off steam like a whistling tea kettle, and, at a time when women had as much say in things as lambs led to slaughter. And now, women were riding rockets into space and running for President and having sex just for the fun of it.
“As it was, I met Martin in a honky-tonk bar in Harlem. He’d been dancing with another woman. Blonde, busty, and plenty drunk when his eyes landed on mine. He was so handsome. Velvety black hair, eyes framed by long, curly lashes. A pencil thin mustache over sexy lips. Oh, those lips!”
I hear laughter and hands clapping. The room has filled with more people.
“Tell us more about Martin, please,” Liz gushes.
I sighed. “We danced for hours that night and after I kicked off my shoes, I tended to two of the biggest blisters I’d ever seen. We were married three months later. Martin was a social butterfly and we attended lavish parties. His friends were rich and famous people. We dined with Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplin. Once, I spent an hour chatting with Amelia Earhart and I was devastated when the news came of her plane being lost at sea.”
I sniffled. “Those years with Martin were the happiest years of my life.”
Liz’s eyes are moist, and she quickly announces, “Let’s break for ten.” She walks to me, places her arms around me and hugs me close. “You’re doing great, Nana. Thank you for doing this for me. I know how difficult it must be for you to stir up all these old memories.”
When Liz returns to the room—excuse me, the set, as she calls it—she resumes with the interview. “So, Nana, this takes us to your third husband. What was he like? Did you love him?”
“Nope. Didn’t even like him.” A few gasps reach my ears.
I straighten my spine the best I’m able. Look directly into the camera. “I married Karl Franz because I had to. I was nearly penniless when I met him. Karl had a decent job as a mechanic with a Ford dealership. I was his third wife and I think he married me because I was a good cook.”
There’s a smattering of laughter. “And here’s a little secret, I’ll share. I never legally changed my name to Franz. Couldn’t bear not to be Mrs. Sinclair. I don’t think Karl ever knew.”
“Do you have one fond recollection of him?”
I chuckle. “Well, yes, there is something. Karl had a glass eye. Looked just like a green marble we would play with as children. Sometimes, Liz, when your mother was a child and she would come for an overnight visit, Karl would remove that darn glass eye and leave it sitting on the kitchen table. In the morning, when your mom found it sitting there, staring at her, she’d scream and holler and whoop as if Frankenstein himself had paid her a visit.”
The laughter is louder now.
Liz is smiling, the type of smile that reaches up to her eyes.
“Well, Nana, this has been a delightful and insightful interview. Are there any last thoughts you would like to leave with our audience?”
I thought about it. “I do, Liz. For the longest time I have wondered if the living arrangements in Heaven will be complicated. Who will I be with?”
“Oh, Nana. Please don’t worry yourself about this. It will all work out exactly as it’s supposed to work out.” She turns to the camera and lighting crew. “That’s a wrap everyone. Good job.”
As the crew begins to break down the set, I remain seated. I’m tired. I sit back on the sofa, close my eyes. Moments later, a blast of light shines on me. My hand covers my eyes, shields them from the brightness. The crew forgot their big round light.
It’s hard to see, but someone draws near. There’s a voice, sweet, melodic. A hand takes mine and I am on my feet and my knees don’t hurt and the arthritis in my back is gone.
I run to him, hug him, can smell the Old Spice aftershave he liked so much. He looks so handsome.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
“I’ve come to take you dancing, my love.”
I walk with Martin across to the big picture window where a golden rainbow fills the sky with more colors than are in a crayon box. I squint, as shapes and figures seated on the rainbow grow clearer. They wave to me.
There’re my parents, my son, Albert, Karl, Amelia Earhart, Fred Astaire. They’re waving wildly now.
Martin is grinning. “You’ve spent too much time worrying about who you will spend eternity with, my love. Well, there’s your answer. You’re going to be dancing with all of us in Paradise. For eternity.”
Wind lifts me; I’m floating on a cloud of a hundred little melodies.
I look back only once.
Liz is smiling. She waves to me and blows me a kiss.
Gold Card Part One
He doesn’t want to kill her. Not really. But she’s brought it on herself.
Kyle Fornwright is his name, a name which should belong to a ridiculously rich boy living in a wealthy community deep in the suburbs of Albany, New York. A boy whose family reeks of money and political clout.
But this Kyle Fornwright—a nineteen-year-old boy existing in a town without a real name—is far from the boy he wishes to be. If able to paint his portrait, he’d sketch himself bulky with muscles, not paper-thin skinny; his face staring back at him angelically, with soft blue eyes. Who is he kidding? How and where could he ever come upon paints, brushes, an easel?
In the fading light of a sticky summer’s night, he crouches behind an old Tesla, a four-decades old relic and waits. This lifeless knoll, where flowers and even weeds refuse to bloom, is a four-kilometer trot from a cabin he shares with his father and a younger sister, blind since birth.
Their lives are tempered by a meager existence, for when virtual money took its disastrous hit after a long, drawn-out war with Korea, food, solar power and even shoes are nearly impossible to purchase.
Unless of course, one possesses a Gold Card.
A powerful card offering unparalleled luxuries: coffee beans and real spinach, unlike the vegetables growing in their patchy garden and tasting like day old rot; meat from real cows and pigs, not from dirty pigeons and raccoons.
A warm breeze tickles his neck just as his eyes snap open to a sound, a crunch beneath feet. Quickly, his beat-up sneakers slide down the knobby hill crushing pebbles and twigs and discarded apple cores.
Plenty of time remains and he wonders how Miss Angela Parson’s face will look the moment before he blows it away with the old pump-and-go-rifle from his father’s closet.
Her own fault for denying me the Gold Card.
“What the hell’s all the fuss about a Gold Card, son?” his father asks last night over a cold meal of radish salad and mushy peas.
Kyle nearly chokes his response. “You still don’t get it, Dad. Without that card we’ll never eat real food again. A competent doctor will never see Giselle. We’ll remain the only people in this Godforsaken place withering away like burnt stalks of corn.”
His father is a thin bit of a man. Too old to work, too young to die. “How do your friends survive?” he stutters around a small slice of radish lodged between his front teeth.
“They have cards.”
“Can’t you get one?”
Doesn’t his father understand? You got a Gold Card by committing to back-breaking community farming chores for five-point-three years. Or, by purchasing one at exorbitant prices using illegal market currency.
Of course, stealing one is also an option, though difficult to do.
Gold Cards are infinitely more prized than whiskey or prostitutes. If you are lucky enough to possess one, you lock it up somewhere safe. Bury it deep in the woods or inside the rotting corpse of a chicken or a goat. Because losing your Gold Card or, having it stolen from you, well, then you’re shit-out-of-luck. No such thing as a replacement card.
Kyle shivers knowing the penalty for stealing one: Death. No questions asked. No judge, no jury, no witnesses. A person may as well stab themselves in the heart and be done with it.
“No sense fretting over it, son,” his father mumbles. “That card won’t get you into heaven. Let it rest.”
But Kyle doesn’t want to let it rest. He desperately wants a Gold Card so he can attend the annual live music event at Brawley Park that night. And he sure isn’t going to let that bitch Angela Parson stand in his way.
She tells him straight out he doesn’t match the criteria to receive a card. “You’re IQ isn’t much higher than a golf ball,” she snickers in her high-pitched voice. “That card’s reserved for hard working, community-minded people. Not for dumbass, lazy boys.”
Now, Kyle darts down the rest of the hill, then out to the black top of Short Hill Road. One lane in either direction, forever quiet these days.
He must be in Angela Parson’s sorry excuse of a backyard by nine-seventeen, or his plan is ruined. His eyes adjust to the deepening dark sky. For a moment, Kyle thinks he spots an old man walking on the opposite side of the road, but no, he can’t be sure.
Later that night, old man Crenshaw will swear he saw Kyle hiking in the direction of Miss Parson’s cabin about nine o’clock.
Kyle shifts his sling bag from hand to hand, hums his favorite Ted Cholson song as he walks. His pals, Jeff, and Pinky will surely be surprised when they see him waltz into Brawley Park to enjoy Cholson’s live music event.
Turning onto Holyoke Lane he notices how far apart the cabins are aligned. Reaching number 303, he stops, eyes the deserted road. Angela Parson’s cabin is a peeling mass of urine colored wood behind a patch of brown lawn. To the right of the cabin is an empty area people often mistake as a dump site. To the left, a rusty chain link fence separates 303’s property from the railway tracks belonging to the county.
The railway continues to run a daily shuttle through town and, it is due to pass along in seven minutes. Kyle jogs into the backyard, drops to his belly. Crawls through high reeds of brittle grass and dandelions. Opening his sling bag, he removes the pump-and-go-rifle and sprints to the side of the cabin. Flattens himself against the rotted wood as he folds himself within the silence of the night.
He taps his ancient solar-powered wristwatch. Three minutes to go. Groping his way to the back door, he very gently twists the knob. It doesn’t move. Shit! Now I’ll have to waste two bullets.
He waits, barely breathing, his attention drawn to the sound of the muffled train whistle still two miles away. Closing his eyes, he imagines the big locomotive passing swiftly by Schroder’s market stand, passing Miller’s Silo, then its quick uphill chug to the sharp curve heading right alongside Pretty Boy Lou’s cabin.
Now he hears it, racing along Short Hill Road. Jesus! It will be here any second!
Swiftly, he aims the rifle at the cabin door, pulls the trigger. Chunks of wood splinter everywhere. He yanks open the door, rushes inside. As the train whistles past the cabin’s small window, Kyle feels the reverberation beneath his feet. A dim blinking light leads him to the end of a hallway.
There she is, sitting up in bed staring at a busted TV screen. Her hair is pinned up with old-fashioned pink curlers—Lord knows where she got them—making her head look twice as large.
Kyle almost laughs. When she spots him, her face freezes in fear. “What are you doing here?” Angela Parson croaks.
He raises the rifle. Aims.
She screams, the sound lost in the volley of noise from the passing train.
After pulling the trigger, he tries not to look at the mess left behind: the blood and pieces of scalp; bits and shards of her pink curlers. Quickly, he nudges her dead weight to the opposite side of the bed, gropes beneath the bloody, moth-eaten mattress, searches for the Gold Card he knows is tucked there.
“Stupid old bitch,” he mutters as his fingers find the card. Kyle knows of the hiding place since overhearing her whisper it to her friend Linga yesterday as he washed the grimy floors of Miller’s Silo.
Yanking out the Gold Card, he shoves it into his shirt pocket right alongside two more bullets. Racing from the cabin he dives headfirst into the tall grass, crawls to his sling bag and shoves the rifle into it. Zips it closed.
Quickly, he rises, perspiration dripping down his back, his legs, as he retraces his steps along Short Hill Road. He pauses near the remains of the rotting hulk of an army Jeep, now home to a family of young raccoons. Kyle slips behind the flattened rear tire, shoves the sling bag underneath the Jeep, certain the rifle will be safe until morning.
He shimmies up the remainder of the hill, locates the old Tesla and rests his back against its rough metal.
With any luck, he’ll be able to hitch a ride to Brawley Park.
~ To Be Continued ~
GOLD CARD-PART TWO
Shortly after eleven o’clock, Kyle Fornwright arrives at Brawley Park and joins the snaking line waiting to enter the music plaza, where Ted Cholson will perform his annual live music event.
He is nervous, a bit afraid. Afraid something may go wrong; afraid someone will not believe his Gold Card is legit. But tonight, Kyle desperately needs to be one with the universe; one with his friends whose families easily survive the brutality of a poor, hungry, maimed nation.
Inching closer to the entry, Kyle pulls the card from his pocket, cradles it in his palm, studies it as diligently as he studies the centerfold of an eighty-year-old Playboy magazine he’s recently discovered behind a pile of dead shrubbery along with a rain-soaked package of real cigarettes.
He is giddy with power. With the Gold Card, now, he too, will be able to buy a chicken and new socks for his father. Maybe even a ribbon for his sister’s hair. Perhaps then the deep pockets of despair will disappear from his bony face.
He is mere footsteps from the entry. It beckons him the way a newly dug grave beckons a dead man. The big guy at the entry accepts his Gold Card; eyeballs it, then slips it into a square white box clipped to his belt. A tiny green light flashes. “You’re in buddy,” the guy says, waving him inside.
Dazed, Kyle shuffles through the park, stops at the first Beer Port he sees. Asks for a large brew—free to those with a Gold Card—sucks at the white foam as it spills down the side of the tin tumbler. The cold draft tastes wonderful as it slides down his dry throat. The music is decibels louder as he approaches the music plaza. Crowds of people are leaning against each other or dancing in place.
“Hey, Kyle! What the…?” Pinky yells as he slaps Kyle on his back. “How the hell did you get in here?”
Kyle dangles his Gold Card in front of Pinky’s eyes. “Whose old lady did you rob?” Pinky laughs.
Kyle smiles, lifts his cup in mock salute. Pinky fishes inside his jean pockets, hands Kyle a red pill, a Quantum Quaalude. “For you, pal, in honor of you finally getting a card.”
At midnight, the opening band finishes, and the Ted Cholson Group takes over. By the second set, Kyle feels the Quantum Quaalude hit him. He is like butter melting over a slow fire, his legs rubbery, his head seeming to float away from his body.
The music seduces him. Slowly he shuffles his feet, an imitation of dance steps. He moves in time with Pinky’s girl, Tanaka, and Tanaka’s friend who hovers nearby. Kyle cannot remember her name, but it doesn’t matter. When has a name mattered?
The girl stands behind him, hugs him close, kisses the back of his neck with dainty, soft kisses. He wants to look into her eyes again, but he remains paralyzed by her fingers dancing along his shoulders; the way her hands inch around to feel his scrawny chest, his nipples. Wisps of her hair tickle him as she presses harder against him. They sway together, her movements erotic.
The crowd moves with them now, picks them up, rotates them, brings them face forward again. Someone thrusts a wet beer tin at him, but as he lifts the tin to the place where he believes his lips are, he misses and douses the front of his shirt.
It is way past three a.m. when the music finally ends. Kyle remains incredibly stoned and can barely walk. The girl clings to his waist and, like wounded soldiers, they stumble from the plaza. People spill from the park, one huge wave of humanity moving in unison. The night is cool, the sky full of shimmering stars twinkling like diamonds waiting for plucking from the air.
Kyle barely feels Pinky’s finger as it pokes him. “Let’s go, buddy.”
Pinky has his dad’s pickup truck. The girl hoists herself onto the flatbed and, with Pinky’s help, they drag Kyle up, too. Another couple huddles together on the opposite end of the truck, holding on to spare tires for support.
Soon, the bouncing of the pickup makes Kyle sick. He swallows back the stale liquid that threatens to spew over them. He doesn’t want to puke on this nice girl who has shown him such special attention during the music event.
He lifts his head, inhales deeply and it is then the accident happens.
Happens too quickly for him to react.
The pickup hits something or, someone. In a heartbeat Kyle catapults through the air, the stars waving goodbye to him, the blacktop saying hello as his head smashes against the road and a fistful of pebbles and gravel dig their way inside him to shake hands with his brain.
Kyle opens his eyes to a perfect sunrise. Confused, he leans up on his elbows, glances around. It takes him a full minute to understand he is sitting on the northbound turning lane of Route 16.
“Morning, Kyle,” an unfamiliar accented voice speaks. The voice sounds as if it is spiraling down from a million miles away. Kyle cranks his head to stare up at a tall, bulky stranger, dark skinned, with lengthy sideburns the color of dirty straw. The person wears sunglasses, yet Kyle can see past the dark lenses, right into a pair of opaque, blue eyes.
The stranger holds out a hand and pulls Kyle to his feet. “Name’s Gabe,” the person says. “I’m your EP.”
“And I’m confused,” Kyle mumbles.
Gabe smiles. “Of course, you are.” A meaty paw clamps onto Kyle’s forearm, guides him away from the rising sun. “This here’s Heaven’s Path you’re walking on. You died last night, Kyle. Flipped from an open flatbed and cracked that skinny little head of yours wide open.”
Hesitantly, Kyle walks a few steps, then stops. “I died last night?”
“That’s right. It’s the reason I’m here with you. I’m your EP, Entrance Processor. I’m here to help you get squared away in Heaven.”
Kyle teeters to his left, his equilibrium way out of whack. Dead? He can’t possibly be dead. He’s still intact; his body moving just fine, his mouth clearly forming words. This joker is trying to play one hell of a trick on him!
“Takes a while for you to believe it,” Gabe says.
“How do you know my name? I didn’t tell it to you.”
“You didn’t have to tell me, Kyle. This is Heaven’s Path. I know everything. Now come along. They’re waiting for you.”
Kyle follows Gabe past the embankment on Short Hill Road, right up to his own cabin. The one he shares with his father and blind sister. Silently, they shuffle through the rotting gate and into the miserable backyard with its small, patchy garden.
Three blinks of an eye later, the backyard evaporates, replaced by a large office where an ugly man wearing a cheap blue suit, sits behind a desk as large as a banquet table. In his lap purrs a huge gray cat with matted fur and shiny ginger-colored eyes. The cat reminds Kyle of the first animal he used as target practice for the pump-and-go rifle.
The ugly man has a fat wart beneath his right eye and thick lips as raw as uncooked cow meat. Kyle cannot draw his eyes away from the massive wart.
“Card?” the man asks.
Sighing, the man points his thumb behind him to a sign which has miraculously appeared. Its big, white lettering clearly spells:
NO ADMITTANCE WITHOUT GOLD CARD. NO EXCEPTIONS!
Kyle smiles, reaches into his shirt pocket to retrieve his Gold Card. Abruptly, his smile vanishes. He fumbles through his jean pockets, turns them inside out, panics with every tick of his watch.
“Do you have your card or don’t you?” the man demands. “I haven’t got all day, you know.”
Kyle’s words jumble inside his mouth. “I don’t…I mean, I had it last night…I must have lost it during the accident.”
“Or,” Gabe interrupts, “maybe the nice girl you met last night wasn’t as nice as you thought.” Gabe winks at him as if Kyle should know what the wink means.
“Move him out,” the ugly man huffs. “I’ve got a load of people to move through here today.”
Gabe gently takes hold of Kyle’s arm. “This way.”
Fear grips Kyle’s belly, his eyes wild, pleading. If they aren’t going to allow me into Heaven…does that mean…? As he walks, his feet clop loudly, as if he is wearing concrete shoes. “Where are you taking me?” he whispers.
Gabe smiles a lopsided grin, his face stretching like a rubber band about to snap. “No worries. We’re heading to a place where you’ll have a second chance to earn another Gold Card. It’s called Survival Camp. Everyone there has the same problem you have: no way into Heaven. Now, the way it works is this: you survive six months at camp, you’ll earn yourself a spanking new card and you’ll be floating through Heaven’s gates. If you don’t survive, well, you won’t be needing anything else.”
Kyle reels: feels he might faint. “How will I survive?” he wails.
Gabe places both hands on Kyle’s shoulders. Stares at him with pity. Momentarily, he wonders if this poor, useless boy might have been his own son in one life or another.
“Let’s see who’s been assigned as your Camp Survival Instructor.” Gabe snaps his fingers, and a thick, creamy white piece of paper appears in his large hand. His finger travels the length of the sheet, stopping abruptly.
“No, no, no, this won’t do at all,” Gabe grumbles.
“What is it?” Kyle’s voice stutters.
Gabe shakes his head. “You can’t be assigned to this guy! Charles Manson? He’s a monster! Died in prison more than a hundred years ago for murdering defenseless people at a party. Less than one percent of his assignees survive. He’ll tear you to shreds in your first few days.”
Kyle’s left eye begins to twitch; his mouth and right hand quickly follows. “Don’t worry, kid,” Gabe says, “I’m going to make this right for you, I promise.”
Gabe snaps his fingers again and Kyle is astonished as he watches Gabe’s head make a complete 360-degree rotation; wonders if Gabe’s head is going to twist off his neck and roll away along the road.
“Now, listen,” Gabe says anxiously. “I’ve called in a big favor for you. Don’t mess it up, you hear?”
Kyle’s head nods like a puppet being yanked by a string. “Anything, Gabe. I’ll do anything you say. I swear.”
“Okay. Because I’m taking a big chance here. But I like you, kid. I want you to make it into Heaven. So, I’ve switched your Survival Camp Instructor from Charles Manson to my wife. Ninety-six percent of her people make it through.”
Gabe gets up close into Kyle’s face. “I’m going out on a limb for you, Kyle. Please, don’t make me regret it.”
“I won’t Gabe,” Kyle promises. Man, I will pay close attention, work my ass off and get the damn Gold Card. I’ve done it before, though the odds then were so different. But I can do it again. I know I can!
“Okay, then,” Gabe says as he whirls around, waves his arms.
“Here, honey! Over here, Angela!”