Two lost souls
It's nine-fifteen a.m. My sister, Evvie, who is seventy-three to my seventy-five, sits in my tiny kitchen in her bathing suit drinking coffee. Our towels are draped around our shoulders since the air conditioning is turned up high. September weather here in Fort Lauderdale has been especially hot. We aren't saying much because by now we are talked out. The phone rings. Evvie sighs.
"What do I tell them this time?" I ask as I match her sigh for sigh.
"Same as you did last time. We'll be down when we get there. Let them splash around 'til then."
I answer the phone. This time it's Sophie. I guess the girls are taking turns. "I know we're late," I tell her before she can say a word.
She speaks so loud, I have to hold the receiver away from my ear. "Soon everyone will leave."
"Good," Evvie whispers.
"They're still waiting for you," I report to her.
"That's exactly why I'm up here, instead of down at the pool. If I stall long enough they'll go home."
I hold out the phone to her. "You want to tell Sophie?"
"No. You handle it."
"We're on our way," I lie.
"You've got to face them sometime," I tell Evvie, hanging up the phone.
"Later, better than sooner."
I walk over and pull her out of the chair. "Enough. Come on. You've got to get on with your life."
Evvie laughs bitterly. "Gladdy, that's what I keep telling you."
Neither one of us is in great emotional shape. Evvie can't pull herself together since her tragic love affair with Philip Smythe ended, and I'm not in great shape, either, thanks to Jack acting like a yo-yo. Here today, gone tomorrow. I'm still upset that my boyfriend-the second Jack in my life-no longer wants to see me because of a silly quarrel. He feels I chose my girls over him. I fear I've lost him forever.
It's been worse for my sister, though. Our private investigation team, Gladdy Gold and Associates, thought we were taking on a minor case at a posh retirement facility in Palm Beach, but it turned out to be dangerous for Evvie. She truly fell in love for the first time in her life, and it was almost the death of her. Evvie is overwrought with despair and can't face anyone; she's been hiding out, mostly in my apartment, ever since.
The doorbell rings. I don't need to guess who. It's the girls, ignoring our pathetic excuses and coming to drag us out of here. Evvie is rigid with fear. I kiss her cheek. "Just remember, all our neighbors think you're a hero, so get into your actress mode and convince them."
We are a rather ragtag group of seniors. We've all lived in Lanai Gardens in Fort Lauderdale for give or take twenty-five years. During those years we each had our own selection of friends. But as husbands and friends passed away, we regrouped. So now it's Evvie and me and three other women who take care of one another. Since I'm the only one still driving I seem to be the leader of this oddball pack of different personalities.
Our girls peer in through the screen door. Ida, arms folded, taps her foot impatiently. Sophie, grandly attired as usual in a color-coordinated bathing outfit from top to toes, has her hands on her hips. Bella meekly stands still, ever worried about making waves in our little private universe.
Here's a hair color update on our little gang. Ida, salt and pepper. Bella, totally white. Sophie, who changes color on a whim, flaunts her new shade of the month: apricot. Me, still lots of brown but getting grayer by the minute. However, Evvie's recently dyed vivid auburn hair shows no gray returning yet. I imagine every time she looks in the mirror she thinks of Philip, the man who made her feel young and beautiful again.
"So, nu," Ida says. "Coming or not coming?"
Evvie pushes open the screen, which makes them all jump out of her way. As she heads for the elevator she calls back at them, "Come on, let's get the show on the road."
The pool is The Pool. Attendance required. The gathering place of the residents of Lanai Gardens, Phase Two. Home of breaking news. Gossip hot off the griddle. Touch base time. With all the usual suspects. However, there are a few new permutations and combinations. Irving Weiss is not in attendance. Millie is now in a permanent Alzheimer's facility and he visits his beloved wife every single morning. Mary Mueller, our in-house nurse who saved Millie's life, drives him there every day.
Our newlyweds-Tessie Hoffman Spankowitz, an excitable fifty-six, and Sol Spankowitz, a decrepit and depressed seventy-nine-are in the pool. Hefty Tessie is trying to teach her new husband how to swim. It's hard to tell whether he is more terrified of drowning or of his wife.
Sol is not a happy man.
We all head for our usual chaise lounges. Heaven forbid someone doesn't stick to the unwritten seating chart. All hell would break loose.
"Hey, here they come," calls Hy Binder. "Just in time for my new joke."
One of the Canadians applauds Evvie. "Can't wait to hear about your big adventure."
No one is a fan of Hy's jokes. But then again, besides his brain-dead wife, Lola, who would be?
Evvie, who is wearing sunglasses and a huge straw hat to hide her face and feelings, parries back, "Hey, goody, goody, just in time." Needless to say, Evvie hates Hy's jokes but right now she'll stand for anything to keep herself out of the limelight.
Hy jumps in fast before someone stops him. He bows to the newlyweds in the pool. "This joke is dedicated to the new Mr. and Mrs. Spankowitz."
Tessie grins and wraps her huge arms around Sol's puny, wattled, tense neck.
The Canadians make a point of going back to their newspapers and magazines. Many others groan. Evvie sits up to listen as if with rapt attention.
Hy emotes. "Sam goes to his doctor and says, 'Doc, my wife is trying to poison me.' His doctor says, 'Sam, don't be silly.' He says, 'No, really, she's out to get me.' The doctor sighs and says, 'Bring your wife, Maisie, in to see me.' The next day he does and the doctor and Maisie go into his office. Sam waits outside. And waits and waits. Finally two hours later the doctor rushes out, his face a mass of sweat. 'What should I do, Doc?' Sam asks. 'Take the poison,' he says, 'take the poison!' "
Tessie looks confused. Sol nods, getting it.
Then the usual boos erupt, except for Sophie, who thinks it's hilarious and applauds.
Enya Slovak, our concentration camp survivor, looks up at him and says, "Hy Binder, shame on you!" With that, she goes back to reading her book.
Evvie abruptly stands. "I forgot I have to make an important call. Bye, gang." She walks away, leaving waves of disappointment. Our neighbors had hoped for some hot gossip.
Trying to cheer us up, Bella cooks dinner, her famous chicken soup with matzo balls, parsnips, and soup greens.
Bella's apartment is always immaculate. I don't know how she does it at eighty-three all by herself. The rest of us share a cleaning service that comes to help us out. Not Bella. She says she loves cleaning. And washing windows. And ironing. Yuk.
But tonight Bella's good intentions aren't working. I am not enjoying my dinner. Neither is Evvie, since the girls decided we needed a lecture along with our meal. The topic is their opinions about love. They each have a pet theme.
Ida, the man-hater: "Men are no good anyway. Who needs them?"
Sophie, Ms. Malaprop: "They're like buses. Another one will come along any year."
Bella: "I think men are nice. But I can't remember."
Now the advice gets specific. Aimed at me.
Evvie insists I call Jack. "You have the only good one; don't lose him." And then she bursts into tears.
Ida passes the tureen around. "I personally wouldn't shed a tear over a man."
Sophie helps herself to a third portion. "Go ahead, beg if you have to. You could always cross your fingers when you do it."
Bella daintily waves the soup away. "I like Jack. He's a mensch. So where did he say he was going? Miami Beach?"
I need to get the topic off me. "He didn't say. I've tried calling him, but he won't answer the phone. He doesn't want to talk to me. Look, I'm all right. It's Evvie who needs help."
She counters, "I don't need help. I just need some peace and quiet."
Ida: "Feeling sorry for yourself is stupid. Just hate him and be done with him."
Sophie: "I still can't get them straight. Who do you love? Philip or Ray?"
Bella: "What about the killer? He should get the chair!"
Evvie jumps up. "Everybody leave me alone!" She hurries to the door. "Thanks for the soup. Next time, flank steak. My place." With that she's gone.
Bella is perturbed. "She didn't stay for the brownies."Chapter Two
Father and son night
I should be getting home," Jack Langford says to his son, Morrie.
"It's only ten o'clock. What are you worried about? You'll turn into a pumpkin?"
The two men are clearing the table in Morrie's small stucco house in the southern part of Fort Lauderdale. The kitchen and dining room form one unit, which makes it easy-perfect for a bachelor. "Too bad you're such a good cook," Jack comments, setting the plates in the sink.
"That's an odd thing to say, ungrateful even, since you polished off every bite of my beef Stroganoff."
"Maybe if you went hungry every night, you'd finally pick some nice girl and settle down."
"Now you sound like Mom." The men smile in memory of Faye, wonderful wife and mother.
"You're pushing forty, sonny boy."
"I might remind you, you didn't marry until you were forty."
Jack grins. He enjoys the teasing banter between the two of them. "That's different. In those lean days I needed to earn more money before I could settle down. And besides, we believed in long engagements." He reaches across the table for his wineglass and takes a sip.
"And what about Lisa?" Morrie rolls up his cuffs, turns on the hot water in the sink and squeezes soap on a sponge. "My sister didn't marry early, either. She wanted her career first. So, there you are; late marriage runs in the family."
Ignoring his futile argument, Jack plunges on, still smiling. "What was wrong with that beautiful redhead, Annie? I liked her."
"She was a micromanager and needed to know where I was every minute of the day. What I was thinking every moment. Not good for a cop's wife."
"And Lynn? You told me she was perfect."
"She was. For someone else. That's what she said when she returned my ring."
"Oops. You never told me that part."
"Hey, maybe I'm just unlucky in love."
"Or too picky. Keep looking. You better watch out or the guys in the station will think you're gay." 4 "Or smart. Especially the disillusioned, divorced ones."
It's a running joke between them, since Jack is a former cop himself, and Morrie's best friend-and former partner-Oz Washington, is gay. But everybody in the precinct knows Oz is a rotten cook. So much for stereotypes.
"You should talk." Morrie hands his dad a towel while he washes the plates. "What about Michelle? Why didn't you marry her? You were soooo in love. What was it, eight years ago when you took that trip to France?"
Jack is startled. He hasn't thought about her in a long time, having written off their month together as a brief fantasy. The beautiful, sexy Frenchwoman and the lonely American. The perfect vacation. The perfect love affair. Why had he been so afraid to bring her here? Wasn't he tempted to stay with her, to live in Paris? No, he couldn't be so far from his children. And he wasn't sure Michelle would have come to America; she was famous in Paris, with her own television talk show. And she was much younger. But Jack had never even asked her-he was so sure Michelle would turn him down.
"I'm sorry I ever mentioned it."
Morrie grins, mimicking, " 'Mentioned it?' You mooned around for months, drove us all crazy. 'Should I go back? Should I call?' "
"No use lamenting over something that's long gone." Jack sighs. Fantasy, all fantasy. But every person should have one once in their lives.
"And now, Mr. Authority on Commitment, you haven't swept Gladdy Gold off her feet yet. I eagerly look at my mail every day waiting for my invitation to the wedding."
Jack shakes his head. "She hasn't emotionally buried her late husband yet. She thinks she has, but she hasn't. So she clings to her sister and her friends, afraid to move on."
"But she was willing to go away with you. To a secret island. Another perfect vacation?"
Jack swats his son with the damp towel. "It proves my point. If she really wanted to be alone with me, she wouldn't have told Bella where we were going. I suspect she was relieved to get the fax that forced us to come home early. On a subconscious level, that is."
"Thank you, Dr. Phil."
"She'd deny it, but I think I'm right."
By now all the dishes have been washed and dried. The two men head for the door.
"Eat and run, you're that kind of guy," says Morrie, punching his father gently on the shoulder.
"I guess I'm half hoping to get home and find a message from her on my machine."
"Hey, Dad, the phone works two ways. You could call her."
"No." Jack shakes his head. "She needs the time alone to work it out in her own mind."
"So your plan is to wait until she comes to you?"
"I'm working on a different plan. I'm thinking of going up to New York for a while."
"And . . . ?"
"Visit your sister and Dan and the kids."
"And? Stop stalling. I know you're up to something."
"Visit some of my old cronies in my old precinct . . ."
"And? More and's?"
"And try to reopen Gladdy's case and see if I can find the perp who murdered her husband."
Ignoring the amazement he knows will appear on Morrie's face, Jack opens the door and, not looking back, waves good night.
I've had it with my sister's problem. . . . Mine is different. No, let's be honest. Forget pride. I miss Jack terribly and I want answers. I need answers! If the father won't talk, I'll get it out of the son.
I keep leaving messages at the police station for Detective Morgan Langford but he never returns my calls. It must run in the family. Morrie knows perfectly well why I am calling. This time I don't request him, but ask the operator when he is expected in to work.
What a hypocrite I am, giving Evvie advice that I don't take for myself: Give up the impossible. I tell Evvie to walk away from Philip because it's a hopeless case, and here I am going behind her back to try and get Jack into my life again. Truly, Evvie has no choice; she must find a way to go on without Philip. There is no chance they can ever be together again. So shouldn't I do the same with a man who no longer wants me? No! Not until I am very sure that's the case.
Excerpted from Getting Old is to Die For 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.