Alone at Last
Here I am, Gladdy Gold, happily up to my neck in warm bubbles, soaking in this wooden barrel hot-tub-for-two, drinking pi-a coladas in front of our fale, which is the Polynesian word for our picturesque private thatched hut. Remarkably, the hut has cement floors, yet is air-conditioned. Our bathroom is in the open air and our shower is a waterfall, surrounded by an exotic jungle full of vines with leaves the size of elephant ears. Wow! What bliss. What happiness.
Just a few days ago, the girls--even though we are in our seventies and eighties, my sister Evvie and our friends, Sophie, Bella, and Ida, will always be "the girls"--and I had been on a bingo cruise where, much to my amazement, we not only caught a killer, but won at bingo, too. That was all well and good, but I missed my new boyfriend, Jack. Lo and behold, he turned up at the port where we docked. So Jack and I left the girls to fend for themselves on the good ship Heavenly, and now we are on this heavenly island of our own. It took sixteen grueling hours to get here, snatching moments of sleep as we leaned against each other in bumpy planes. Well worth it, now that we're here. Alone at last.
I sip the last of my pi-a colada, then lean my head back against the edge of the hot tub and sigh contentedly. The sky is beginning to darken. Dramatic slashes of red illuminate the patchy clouds. Red sky at night, I think, sailor's delight.
I had no idea how much I would like being away from everyone. What's not to like? I look around me.
On the picnic table next to the hot tub, Jack has placed the portable CD player and CD he bought at the Samoa airport when we landed very early this morning. Corny music, but what with the lack of choices in an airport in the middle of nowhere, the well-worn theme from Titanic will have to do. When we landed this morning, there was a crowd of natives greeting the plane. I guess the twice-a-week flights are a big event here.
I have the luggage I took with me on the cruise. Jack has nothing but the suit he was wearing when he showed up at the port. And proud of it. So, he's impulsive; I like that about him. You should see him now, wearing the wraparound skirt called a lavalava, the male version of a sarong, which he bought in the airport gift shop along with a shaving kit and a toothbrush. Winking and leering at me, he told me he wouldn't need anything else. I couldn't resist buying the matching lady's muumuu.
All day today has been prelude to right now. Dressed in our new native attire (and me with an exotic frangipani flower in my hair) Jack and I had an early lunch of island fruits--papayas, pineapple, and bananas--served to us on the porch of our quaint little thatched hut. Then a long, barefoot walk on a beach with the whitest sand I've ever seen, gathering shells and drinking those addictive pi-a coladas from actual coconuts. Whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears. Mmm, wonderful. Topped off with fresh ahi tuna for dinner, caught by a local fisherman and fixed for us in the intimate candlelit dining room of our charming island hotel.
Jack's waited a long time for us to finally get away from the girls and consummate our love for each other, and he is doing his best to make it memorable.
So the scene is set. A perfect day continuing on into a magical night. Music, drinks, the smell of jasmine all around us--romance everywhere. I can hear Jack whistling Celine Dion as he comes out of the hut with another round of drinks.
But am I ready? I think so. Finally. I hope I've finally put my late husband to rest. I still have little tremors, little qualms about how this will change my life. This is no one-night stand. This is a prelude to moving in together, marriage, and total commitment. I admit it: Even at my age I fear change. I am comfortable with my cozy, circumscribed life. My simple daily routine, answering to no one but myself. Who ever said falling in love was as easy as falling off a log? For that matter, what's so easy about getting on a log, let alone falling off one, and what's a log got to do with love, anyway?
At the sight of Jack coming toward me, wearing that silly, adorable lavalava, I feel my heart go pitter-patter. I instantly shut my mind off. He is so handsome and so sexy. And he wants me.
He bends to me. "Madame, a refill?"
"But of course."
He pours and then gives me a gentle kiss. "Shall I join you?"
I splash as I move to make room for him. I can't take my eyes off him, nor can he stop gazing adoringly at me.
Just as he drops his lavalava and sets one foot into the tub, we hear the muffled, tinny sound of a bugle--three short, shocking blasts. Jack, startled, falls into the tub on top of me. I go under, my mouth filling with bubbles. We scramble up and out of the tub as best we can, reaching for towels to cover ourselves.
"May I approach?" The voice of a native bellboy calls from behind a palm tree. He waits for an answer: The hotel's idea of a subtle way to warn lovers in case they are--well, as we were--in a state of indelicacy.
Jack and I exchange despairing looks. What timing! I shrug. Jack calls out, "Permission granted."
I giggle at his formal pronouncement and squeeze his hand. Our messenger comes forward, eyes suitably lowered at the sight of two wet, embarrassed, towel-clad guests.
The bellboy hands Jack a fax. Naturally, he's the man, so he gets it. The boy doesn't wait for a tip. There are no pockets in towels.
Jack reads it, with me looking over his shoulder.
"What!" we both shout at the same time.
The message is short and to the point: Come home. Sophie is dying.
We scramble into our clothes; Jack into his one and only suit while I quickly and unhappily choose a traveling outfit. At the reception desk we learn that the fax came from the ship Heavenly. Jack's cell phone is useless, so we have to use the hotel's phone. Jack shrugs at the irony. He found us the most out-of-the-way place to go so we wouldn't be disturbed and now, in an emergency, we can hardly reach anyone on the outside.
After endless tries, with many excuses from the obsequious manager about old equipment, time differences, and that being the charm of getting away from the wearisome world, we do manage to reach Captain Standish on the Heavenly. He informs us that Sophie was airlifted from the ship and was sent back to Fort Lauderdale with her three companions.
"What happened?" I ask him.
"Something about her heart," he informs me.
"Do you know where they took her?"
"I assume she was brought to your local hospital. So sorry."
Now the wires are crackling, or whatever it is that makes any more conversation difficult.
We disconnect from Captain Standish, then try calling the two hospitals nearest to where we live. No Sophie Meyerbeer listed at either of them. No answer in Sophie's apartment. Or Evvie's. Or Ida's. Where the hell can they be?
I say the words, but they're choking me. "We have to go home."
Jack nods. "But there isn't a plane until next Monday."
The manager, who has never left our side, says cheerfully, "You're in luck. The last flight out today leaves in two hours. If you wish to leave, I can book you on it. Of course you'll have to pay for your one night."
"Of course," says Jack bitterly. I know it's the night we won't have that rankles.
If Evvie were here watching us gloomily huddle together on the airstrip in the steamy night air, waiting to board the little puddle jumper, she'd remind me of the movie Casablanca.
She'd utter that famous line, We'll always have Paris. But we can't even say we'll always have Pago Pago.
Another sixteen or so hours of miserable plane travel. Jack and I make small talk to avoid what we both would rather not discuss. When we get home should we call from the airport or just grab a cab and go? Hopefully it won't take too long to get my luggage. Once again we sleep fitfully. And I worry. What could have brought on the attack? Sophie's never had that happen before. How bad is it? Why can't we locate any of the girls? I am in turmoil and agony.
I try to console myself that she is with Evvie, Ida, and Bella. Bella won't be of much use, but Ida and my sister are levelheaded. They can handle things. Or if Sophie's recuperating at home in Lanai Gardens by now, everyone in the entire Phase Two will attend to her. I bemoan the fact that I take my girls for granted. None of us think of our age and what lies ahead. Especially Sophie. She has such a love for life. She never complains. She's always smiling and good-natured.
Please, God, let her be all right.
Somebody once told me a story about a friend who kept buying airline tickets and making hotel reservations. "How can I die," she asked, "when I'm booked for France? Or Israel? Or wherever." For Sophie, it's going downtown to buy yet another colorful, coordinated outfit.
Jack holds my hand most of the trip, bless him.
When we arrive at the Fort Lauderdale airport, the baggage is slow in coming out, as usual, which adds to our anxiety. The heat is suffocating hot--typical for late August. I already miss the coolness of our island getaway. Finally we're on our way home.
We hurry out of the cab as soon as it pulls up in front of my building. And there's Tessie, her frizzy black hair bouncing as she throws her newspapers in the trash barrel. My luck, she's wearing one of her typical muumuus to hide her large size. The irony of a muumuu here is not lost on Jack.
"Tessie. Where's Sophie?"
Tessie looks at us curiously. "Where do you think she is? She's in her apartment with the rest of your gang."
"Thanks." I run past her. I can't wait for the elevator. I rush up the three flights with Jack right behind me.
Tessie yells after me, "Hey, Gladdy. Where's the fire?"
We hear raucous laughter coming from inside Sophie's apartment. And at the same time it dawns on me that Tessie didn't look worried.
No one hears us knock. The screen door is unlocked so we walk in, Jack and I still schlepping my suitcase. Silence falls as we step into the bedroom and they see us. Astonishment flashes across every face.
There roly-poly Sophie is, propped up in bed, dressed all in lavender: nightie, bed jacket, and ribbons in her matching lavender hair. Looking very healthy. Holding court. Eating chocolate. The girls surround her, seated on kitchen chairs and munching on goodies. Her bed is a riot of fashion magazines and candy boxes.
"What are you two doing here?" Evvie asks, amazed.
"I thought you were ill," I say to Sophie, with ice in my voice.
"False alarm," answers Sophie gaily. "Pacemaker needed adjustments."
"But how did you know?" Evvie asks, frowning at me, sensing something is not right or we wouldn't be back this soon.
"You missed all the excitement," Bella says in her usual whisper. "We all got to ride in a helicopter."
"I thought I would faint," Ida adds, patting her tight bun. "You know how easy I get motion sickness. I closed my eyes the entire trip."
Sophie admonishes, "And you missed all the good scenery."
"And unfortunately we missed the last bingo session of the trip," Evvie says, aiming her annoyance at Sophie.
"But we're covered," Bella adds gleefully. "The Bingo Dolls are playing for us. We left them money."
Sophie playfully throws a candy bar at Evvie. "I said I was sorry. I can't help it if I got sick. I needed to get back to my darling Dr. Friendly."
I can feel Jack behind me, stiffening. I don't dare turn to look at him.
Sophie continues, "And he was right there waiting at the hospital for me, bless his heart."
With a cash register clicking away in his head, I think unkindly. Special run to the hospital. Click. Overtime. Click. Quick exam. Click. I'm surprised Dr. Friendly didn't make her stay overnight, like all the other times, and take yet another angiogram and who knows what other expensive tests and procedures. I think he is one step above being a quack, but Sophie worships him so no one is allowed to say a bad word about him.
Bella giggles behind her hands. "Just like dialing nine-one-one. Only more exciting." She reaches for another jujube.
"One-two-three, he checked me out, gave me a new prescription, and sent me on home. Now I take Dijoxin."
Bella adds, "Now she takes ten pills a day."
"I don't mind," Sophie coos. "If my darling Dr. Friendly--"
But I'm not about to let her off the hook. "I tried calling and never got an answer."
Sophie looks puzzled for a moment, then brightens. "I turned off the ringer so I could sleep."
Jack's voice cuts through the levity. I was wondering when he'd reach the point where he'd had enough. "Who sent the fax?"
Everyone looks up at him, bewildered.
"What fax?" Evvie asks.
Jack searches every face, but sees only surprise. Except for Bella, who suddenly drops her candy box onto Sophie's lavish pink bedspread.
Oh, no. I see where this is going.
Bella raises a shaky hand. All eyes are on her. "I did."
"Why?" Jack snaps at her.
Her thin, reedy voice gets even softer. "Because Gladdy always worries if someone doesn't tell her if someone was sick and someone . . ." Bella stops. She's run out of clarity.
Evvie is amazed. "When did you do that?"
"When everyone was packing. I went up to the captain . . ."
Quick-witted, quick-moving Ida is also astonished at such unusual action from our timid friend. "You went all by yourself to the top deck and found your way back to the cabin by yourself?"
Tiny Bella grins with pride, holding her five-foot-tall frame erect in her chair. "The captain said he'd send a fax for me. I told him what to say and then he picked a cute sailor to take me back." She blushes. Bella always blushes when she's the center of attention.
Excerpted from Getting Old is Criminal by Rita Lakin. Copyright © 2007 by Rita Lakin. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.