LARobbins - EXPANSION BRIDGE
LARobbins is a published author and an editor. Her fiction has been published in Ariel Chart, Potato Soup, Storgy Magazine, Mediterraneon Poetry, Aquila Magazine and SCARS, among other places. A recent story made the long list for the Fish Publishing prize. The author received a London Writer-of-the-Year Award for another story. (http://www.robbinsskyward.com)
I only noticed the change when Eloise came back to our bridge group. We'd formed small posses and took it in turn to cheerlead a speedy recuperation when she was in hospital. She was there almost two weeks. She couldn’t move her hands because tubes were taped to them, dripping in haze-makers that slurred speech and slowed bowels, along with antibiotics and that sodium solution that masquerades as food.
What with the comings and goings of nurses - blood pressure, temperature, wound and catheter bag checks - the ward was always hopping; I wouldn’t have noticed any sort of transformation anyway. Mabel and I visited last just before Eloise’s discharge. We told her the bridge news - there wasn’t any good gossip – and we each read her a chapter from my murder mystery. Mabel read slow on account of her bad eyes; she drifted off to sleep, mid-chapter. So did Eloise.
When Eloise came to bridge her flushed cheeks and clear eyes sparkled good health and well-being. How lucky she’d been to be selected for a transplant at her ripe old age, she said. ‘Only got it ‘cause I’m healthy everywhere else.’ She sat up straight to and punctuated her comments with a girlish laugh I didn’t recognize. There was a light inside her - all around her. Crotchety parts were plumb gone; out came funny jokes accompanied by deft wrist flicks and outrageous winks. And her good mood was contagious; I couldn’t stop smiling. We were at Sadie’s that day. Before we went to the cards, we sat ‘round the table for a scrummy lunch, served by Sadie’s housekeeper, a fat Polish lady named Hanna. It was a special welcome back for Eloise: shrimp tails fanned on a bed of lettuce with a spicy tomato relish in crystal champagne glasses, baked, breaded crab in garlic roué, then, my favorite: Hanna’s chocolate cake.
During coffee I popped my handful of pills. Most of the others followed suit - I mean the pill popping: we hadn’t dealt the cards yet. Anti-inflamms, blood slow downers, anti-aches, tummy tamers, bowel binders or looseners. I watched Mabel’s wrinkly fist open to drop her pills on the tablecloth; blue, yellow, green, pink. My jellybeans (ha!) were supposed to sort out my kidneys.
‘Mary Lou, your kidneys are kaput,’ my doctor informed me last time I saw him. ‘You can’t manage without ‘em - they filter the water you take in and send it to where it’s needed. I’m goin’ put you down for dialysis here - there’s a waitlist an’ you need to git on it. Don’t want you driving to kingdom come for treatment.’ No way, dialysis, I thought. I just took my pills. Mabel’s pills were for eye troubles. Sadie and Eloise had arrhythmia, tachycardia and hypertension - heart troubles.
After lunch we made our way to the conservatory. Mabel leaned on her cane; Sadie used one, too. I pressed my hands into my lower back and followed them around the corner. It was better when I’d been able to eat real jellybeans. Last time I did that I’d dislodged half a molar. Pretty soon I’d be reduced to hoovering in baby food. Mabel had dentures; so did Sadie. Aging is the pits. First, you can’t thread a needle, then you forget what you’re supposed to be sewing. You have to turn up the volume on the TV and the adverts, already too loud, get louder. Your hair falls out and skin flaps sprout from your neck like nursing tadpoles. Foot-long eyebrow hairs grow overnight. Then your eyebrows disappear so you pencil them on, Mr Spock-fashion. Your purse bulges with ‘Night-safe’ incontinence pads.
In Sadie’s conservatory we took our places at two card tables. Sadie’s house was my favorite of all our eight bridge venues. It was a grand old mansion that sat on its own hill. A circular drive took you up to the front door, heavy and impressive, between white marble columns and below an ornate, wrought-iron lantern. You entered the 1800s once inside. You expected a Confederate general to be smoking cigars in the Library. ‘Course Sadie’s husband, Charles, might as well be one. We were all widows except Sadie, who whispered she wished she were one, too, like widowhood was a club you could aspire to. Charles was 15 years her senior: he must have been about 93. The mansion, passed down through her parents, was once the only house on the surrounding land. Charles had been a clever investor so it was money marrying money and all the kit and caboodle that went with it. Chippendale this, Persian that, a Richelieu-patterned silver service and a solemn grandfather clock that cleared its throat with whirs and clicks before bonging the hour. Not that Charles would notice; he was stone deaf. He always waved hello as we filed in, head waggling up and down on a long neck. Half tortoise and almost as old.
Eloise and I were partners that day, which had always vexed me before. She never concentrated on the cards as much as on the talk. She opened with one heart - well, she had a new ticker, so why not pay tribute? Janice passed and I offered two hearts. Eloise waggled her eyebrows at me. My own eyebrows went up in surprise; verboten to signal like that and Eloise knew it. She announced ‘three hearts’ which made her the declarer. And she made our nine tricks, no nonsense, slapping down the ace and the queen, her gaze zipping between her hand and the board like she was Charles H. Goren. My dummy role seemed apt; slack-jawed I sat, flabbergasted by her speedy progress. Maybe they’d given her a new brain instead of a new heart.
Eloise and I cleaned up that day, three hearts, two spades, three no trump. Then and there I decided I always wanted to be her partner. Since we played twice a week, I might learn a few tricks off her. We were collecting handbags and shuffling out the front door when I remembered that she’d turned down Hanna’s chocolate cake. Eloise usually asked for seconds. She was a short roly-poly because the cake she ate went straight to her middle.
As I drove her home that day, I asked about her diet.. Her appetite was same as before but she ate different, she told me. Skipped desserts and had cravings for rabbit food - lettuce, carrots, nuts and seeds. She’d lost five pounds. That was good; there were plenty to spare, she chuckled. Eloise had more energy, her eyesight was better and her reflexes faster. The transplant had given her good balance; she walked faster and without her stick she said.
One day Eloise asked me to come to her new yoga class. The teacher was a grey-haired skinny chicken man, Shandi, who took us through poses, all connected with Darth Vader breathing and swooping up from down dog. In my velour stretch pants and an old t-shirt, I struggled with stiffness; no pretzel twists from this tub-a-lard. More like the Tin Man in need of Dorothy’s oilcan. Eloise could have been Toto; up dog, down dog, executed with canine friskiness. I clean forgot to move several times, watching her. After class we put on our street clothes in the ladies’. I’d never seen Eloise in the buff before; she looked pretty good for 77. Maybe they’d whip-stitched a tummy tuck when they changed her heart. Roly poly was trimming down. That’s what got my detective mind ticking about her new heart. Over lunch I asked my burning question:
‘Who was your donor?’ I bit into my Danish and looked at her expectantly.
‘A young woman,’ she answered. ‘I’m not supposed to know - family protection - but my file was at Reception when I went in for a checkup. I peeked - Melanie something - there was a photo - looked about 35.’ Eloise sucked on her straw to inhale her lunch: a witchy seaweed. The light bulb that had snapped on in my brain glowed brighter.
‘You’re different now – green drinks, yoga, energy, focus – soon you’ll be earning bridge master points,’ I said. ‘You’re a regular workout walnut. Maybe Melanie rubbed off. Aren’t you curious? Who was she?’
‘‘Course I am, but -’
I leaned forward. ‘When’s the next appointment?’
‘Friday, after bridge.’
‘Lemme drive you.’
‘Mary Lou, I don’t know.’ Eloise shook her head. Her fingers were laced, like she was kneeling at a pew. ‘First, there’s confidentiality. The family has to sign a release, and they didn’t. And then, do I want to know? Melanie doesn’t need her heart ‘cause she’s dead - there was some, some accident, must’ve killed her. I only have the heart ‘cause Melanie’s cold in the ground.’
I sipped my latté. After a minute or two, I patted my lips with my napkin and said: ‘The heart’s like another brain, pumping blood. The blood goes through all the organs, distributing and carrying information. Seems like more than the pump was transplanted. You can decide -’
Eloise thought about it. Curiosity won.
Friday at the doctor’s office Eloise asked for information about a transplant support group. The receptionist went into the next room. My detective self took charge; I grabbed the pink folder with Eloise’s name on it while she kept a look out. In a little notepad, I jotted down name, DOB, profession - my eyes widened - Melanie had been a yoga and meditation teacher. Then Eloise hissed and I put the folder back just before the receptionist came into the room. A spark of victory zipped through me; I was like the gumshoes in my Whodunits.
Back at my house we sat in front of the computer screen googling ‘Melanie Sekovsky’. Her website still existed – why? She and her family had moved to California from Latvia a decade ago, all of them troubled with illnesses. In LA she’d discovered healthy eating. She’d cured her husband of diabetes, her daughters of chronic eczema and ME - was that what happened to youngsters who got hypnotized by social media? Through the same healthy diet, Melanie herself lost over a hundred pounds - before and after photos proved it. We read on. The family ate mostly raw food and drank - you guessed it - green smoothies! Eloise and I stared at each other. We clinked glasses. Inside hers was a thick sludge of pear and spinach. Yuck.
‘So it’s her heart in you,’ I said, ‘knowing what it wants to eat and what exercise it likes. Melanie’s in charge.’ I sipped my Diet Coke. Eloise smiled. A green fuzzy caterpillar coated her upper lip. I smiled back, on account of the moustache.
On another website a short obit told us Melanie had died in a car accident and was survived by her family. She was 42.
‘That’s exactly why I didn’t want to do this,’ said Eloise, placing her hand over her chest and inhaling, yoga-style. ‘-cause she’s dead. I have her heart.’
‘Yeah, but ‘cause you have her heart, you can live better and longer than you would have with yours,’ I protested, stifling a burp. ‘Melanie didn’t die so she could give you her heart. First she died, nothing to do with you.’ I watched Eloise’s face. ‘Complete luck, you received her heart and not someone else’s. And if you had received someone else’s heart, they didn’t choose to die for you -.’
Eloise’s shoulders straightened as she interrupted me; ‘If I knew who she was, if I could see what her heart wanted to do - I could do it for her, for us.’ Her eyes had widened and her hands were opening like she was catching a beachball. She stood and left the room. I found her in the living room, executing a salute to sun. I curled up on the sofa and watched her go through the ‘asanas’, as Chicken man called them, squatting, arms pointed skyward, hands in prayer, leg lunges, up and down dogs, sky point, squat. A warrior in training - body and breath. ‘Feel better now,’ she announced,
I had to go see my specialist, Doc Renal, I’d nicknamed him, the next day. He took me to the dialysis unit to show me it how worked. My name was top of the list - they could fit me in soon, he told me as we entered the ward. Eight patients, four on the left, four on the right, were hooked up to giant machines. Four hours of blood cleaning: tubes siphoned it out, machine filtered it, tubes funneled it back in. That old biddy was talking to herself in slo-mo? I remarked as we left. Patients’ speech can be slow and slurred at the start but strong and sure at the end, said Doc. Like a wind-up gramophone record? I asked. Their faces probably morphed from grey to white to pink, too, courtesy of this biology experiment. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday: one group, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday: the other. Half of each week, snatched away. I imagined days off feeling dizzy. And dreading days on. Top of the list, I thought. So when somebody dies I could be next in their dialysis chair.
We were at Sadie’s, eating lunch before bridge the next time I saw Eloise. She swept in, all starry-eyed, back from a week-long yoga retreat in the Smoky Mountains with Chicken man. She’d lost more weight. Now she was the perfect proportions for her height, all firm, toned muscle, not a wobble, even under her chin. When I complimented her Wonder Woman looks, she told me she’d learned Turtle pose. I remembered the lady in her yoga class who did Turtle standing up, forward-folded. Wove her arms though her legs, hands clasped behind her back, head poking up between her legs. She staggered up and down her mat[LR1] , examining her bum. I could look in a hand mirror for the same effect, I figured.
Eloise was full of beans that day. She jumped up to clear the lunch dishes with Hanna and crouched down find Mabel’s card under the table. It was after she’d won us a three no-trump bid and we were getting ready to leave that I asked about her new necklace.
‘From Shandi,’ she glowed, running a finger back and forth along the delicate silver chain.
‘Shandi?’ asked Sadie.
‘My yoga instructor,’ Eloise said blushing, then beaming. My eyes near popped out of my head. Chicken man!? We leaned close. A silver character shaped like a delicate number three with a zigzag coming out its backside.
‘Swahili?’ Sadie asked.
‘No, Sanskrit, for “Om”,’ Eloise breathed. ‘The beginning and the end, all rolled into one. That’s the word we end the chant with, you remember, Mary Lou,’ she turned to me.
‘Ummm.’ I nodded. I remembered they’d intoned a long, dentist chair ‘ahhh’ that ended in a hum - where I’d joined in. Maybe Shanti had given her the necklace as an aide-memoire.
‘How come Mr Yoga is giving his disciple a gift?’ I asked.
Eloise crossed her arms around her new trim waist and rocked her head this way and that. Above a big smile her eyes were diamonds. My nostrils flared; something was up.
‘He’s asked me to marry him.’ Now she was blinking back tears and we were all hugging her.
‘Well, well, wha’d'ya know!’
‘You look just peachy,’ Sadie purred.
Mabel just stood there, eyebrows at her hairline, mouth opening and closing like a landed fish. Her hearing was fine, even if her eyes couldn’t make out the new necklace so well.
I didn’t ask what I really wanted to know. Sure, Eloise was a frisky 77-year old, slimmed down, smartened up - but Shandi? He must be in his 50s, young enough to be her son. Had they been in the sack together? Had he yoga-ed her waterworks? Were there special exercises for rewiring the sex socket? And Chicken man - maybe he’d had a plug refit? I couldn’t help but compare Shandi to Eloise’s old Entwhistle, godresthissoul, a be-spectacled walrus with rubbery grey skin and a broom bristle over flaccid lips. He’d died twenty years ago of a heart attack.
Eloise and Shandi held their wedding in her garden in late May. We made offerings of flowers and sweets to a potbellied, elephant-headed statue named Ganesha. The bride and groom stood under her pergola, white jasmine perfuming the air. Flower-covered vines wove in and out of the wrought iron legs and made a feathery thatch across the top. On a raised platform to one side sat sitar and tabla players. We sat across from them, shaded by an awning. A humanist gave a New Age talk about ‘being here now’, celebrating ‘the miracle of the moment, permanence in a world of impermanence’.
Since Eloise was Jewish and Shandi was Hindi, it was a mixed service. The humanist lit a small fire in a metal bowl and the couple, who had tied their garments together at the hems, circled the flames seven times, making vows. Then a crunch as Shandi stamped on a glass wrapped in a linen napkin. After he lifted the veil and kissed the bride, they turned to face us. I stared. Had Eloise secretly opted for another transplant? A small jewel glinted in the space above her eyebrows like a third eye. Later she explained it was a stick-on from the Indian shop downtown - a ‘bhindi’ to give her ‘spiritual insight,’ It was then that some fixed part of me burst into tiny pieces: I needed me a transplant, too. Shandi and Eloise smiling the sun at each other - no denying it - her new heart was a secret elixir that had turned back the clock. She wished she’d done it years ago, she’d said. My turn, I thought. With a kidney transplant, I’d get a second wind, be as close to eternal youth as I was going to get in this go-round. The more I’d thought about it, the more anti-dialysis I’d become. It didn’t buy enough time – it was too hard on the body. Kidney-tubers died quick, maybe of boredom. And anyway, what about that blood cleaning machine? It filtered the blood of lots of patients. Wouldn’t some of the old blood be hiding in the machine parts? I got the heebee jeebies thinking about it. Different patients with germs from their blood - and whose blood was already in the machine? Arab or Chink. Or from a serial offender! Someone with Tourette’s. You wouldn’t know what was being filtered into you.
I told Doc Renal I wanted a transplant instead of dialysis. He tried to dissuade me. Doctors were paid to dissuade elderly patients from organs transplants, I figured. We would die before a matching donor could be found. It could take a year. So no dough for the doctors. If the patient signed up for dialysis, doctors would be guaranteed payment because the patient could start right away. She would die, of course, but slowly, from the effects of dialysis, probably. But not before her money disappeared into medical men’s pockets.
‘You might have to wait a long time for a match,’ Doc Renal told me, right on cue. OK, I’d read that demand exceeded supply. Too many people in need, not only the elderly but the young, who had misbehaving organs. Donors: thin on the ground. I could die waiting. I could die on dialysis, too, I thought. Doc said: ‘Lots of folks feel funny about having a part removed after they are dead. Catholics, for instance, want to go in the ground, all in one piece.’ He was probably right. I imagined a stiff, minus a few organs, at his own wake. Would a taxidermist have been hired to stuff his empty cavities with cotton batting? No. Catholics -and lots of non-Catholics - condemned organ transplants as a demonic business that lined the pockets of opportunists. Amoral ambulance chasers, who benefitted from untimely accidents. Meantime, Doc Renal had shifted gears.
‘Mary Lou, you’d have to take drugs to support your body. And it would cost you to have a transplant - organ procurement is a thriving business.’ And finally: ‘the operation is a risk. At your age,’ he added for good measure.
‘Uh huh, that’s fine,’ I greeted each new negative with a happy nod. I didn’t mind the wait. I was already snarfing handfuls of pills to balance this and suppress that; no problem with taking them longer. I had plenty of money stashed away and decent medical insurance to boot. And I promised not to die. And why not take the risk? Wasn’t he the best renal man in the land - shouldn’t I have faith in his operating skills? The last point clinched it, of course. Stroke a frog: he puffs out his chest and hangs there, paralyzed. Renal inhaled, said he’d get things organized for a transplant, eyes all glassy with my compliment. What a pushover.
‘Where do I sign?’ I asked, smiling hugely.
When I did sign, I told Doc Renal I’d like to know who the donor was. He said what I thought he’d say: against the law, I’d need to trust him. When the right kidney came along, it would be mine. They wouldn’t know who the donor was either. Privacy, protection of family, blah blah. When I started arguing he walked me to the door and shooed me out.
I drove home taking deep breaths. I’d been thinking about this for weeks. What if my donor was a slug-a-bed who had a worse addiction to chocolate than I did? Who died because she weighed four hundred pounds and got stuck in her bedroom doorway? Or a gambler? Or a popcorn addict? I coasted down the hill and turned into my driveway. I couldn’t order a kidney from Amazon after scrolling to find a donor with healthy credentials. Nor could I plan in advance. Are you dying soon so’s I could have your kidney, please? If a kidney came along, I couldn’t reject it ’cause it didn’t measure up. But dialysis sounded worse. What choice did I have? My water filters were packing up, moving out. I’d have to hope for a good donor. I could always investigate afterwards.
While I waited for my new lease on life, I read lots of bumpf, put a dent in my bank account paying hospital bills, and signed ominous papers that began: ‘If I should die…’. I got the call late on a Tuesday night: next morning would be the op. I was excited. Eloise picked me up in Shandi’s Prius.
‘Here’s to stop the nausea after anesthesia.’ She patted a bag of peppermint candies in her purse. Ganesha would look after me, she added, nodding at the top of the dashboard. I prayed to the small orange blob that was Shandi’s god, until the sun reduced him to lump of wax.
Ganesha’s power as remover of obstacles didn’t seem to work. Maybe because the statue in her car had melted. After my op, both ends were blocked: my head was fuzzy and my bum was bunged up, bad. All I did was sleep and strain to poo. I tried the Christian God instead. Give me a bowel movement, even a fart, I prayed, reckoning I might get lucky; most folk wouldn’t ask for such basic needs. The bridge group came to see me. Eloise had master points now. She was thinking about entering a Duplicate competition. Her diamond glinted on a happy finger. I sighed.
Two weeks after I got home from the op my pee was colored. Probably all the pills. Maybe chemicals do that on purpose so that you know you remembered to take them. But I noticed that the pee changed color even though I took the same pills every day. One day it had a blue tinge, the next, it was almost green. Once
the fuzziness was finally gone and I could poo - with the help of the Prune God - I started to pay attention to the pee. In the morning it was usually blue. In the late afternoons: grey. The color varied mid-mornings and evenings, depending on what I was doing or who I was with. I drank more water so I could see it more often. At bridge club I peed blue, usually. One morning, when Eloise and I made a grand slam, it was gold, and I don’t mean the gold color of urine, I mean liquid gold. I wanted to call them all into Sadie’s bathroom to see they had a Queen Midas in their midst. What would a bowel movement have looked like then, I wondered. I’d never noticed a change in color there. Another morning, after Eloise and I were set and went down, my urine was grey. Mabel had declared five clubs - and had made all her tricks.
During coffee I popped my usual handful of pills, as did most of the others. But did I need them all? I had noticed another thing. When Eloise and Shandi invited me to dinner earlier that week, I had felt a surge of energy. Maybe it was because I was in their house. Or from the sandalwood incense, or the prayer they said before we ate - Sanskrit chanting, hands before hearts, eyes at half-mast. Or the food - got a full blown head rush, the minute I sipped the tart apple and ginger brew that Shandi handed me. It was the first time I had ever sampled one of Eloise’s concoctions. Shandi’s meal was restaurant perfect: Onion bhajis, Brinjal Bharta - eggplant in garlicky tomato - and a slow-fired lentil stew with cardamom and ginger. Everything sprinkled with fresh herbs. I savored every mouthful. I felt brighter, clearer thinking. Asked them, what they had put in the food? Could my new kidney have made it taste better?
‘Be open to whatever comes,’ Shandi said in his yoga preaching tone; ‘tune all your senses, not just taste and smell.’
Then I noticed that colors were brighter and had textures. I don’t mean pee colors, I was itching to do something about it. One day, I used the pencil I’d finished the crossword with to make a huge sketch, right on my dining room wall. A scene with a lake, fringed by trees and topped by a few clouds above. I bought paint and began creating a fresco. I became obsessed, skipping the crossword and my TV soaps. I didn’t skip bridge club, but when I got there, all I talked about was green and pink and azure and shades of white for clouds. Sadie came over to see my progress. A big smile bloomed on her face.
‘Since when d’you know how to paint?’
‘Since my new kidney,’ I beamed, holding my palette before me like a waiter’s tray.
When she heard about my fresco, Mabel wanted to come to my next doctor’s visit. You guessed it: she wanted a transplant, too. She could ask the doctor about a possible eye transplant - her thick glasses magnified her eyes to three times their size. She read large print books and wrote herself notes in huge letters. She hadn’t come to see my fresco because she wouldn’t have been able to see it anyway. She also figured a new eye might help her look around to find a boyfriend. This wasn’t guaranteed in the purchase price, I took pains to explain; I didn’t have a chicken man like Eloise did. On the way to the hospital, she asked if I noticed men looking at me. No, I declared. I only saw them in the supermarket, where they fetched and carried to their wives’ commands. A boyfriend wasn’t happening to me, I told her. I was wrong about that, I found out later.
It suited me fine, Mabel coming to the hospital with me. I needed an accomplice for my new plan. As we rode up in the elevator, I asked Mabel to play interference - she’d be the decoy so I could see who my kidney donor was. Once Doc Renal had finished taking blood and quizzing me about meds, respiration, and elimination (no, I didn’t mention the colored pee) my appointment was finished. Mabel batted her magnified, larger-than-life peepers and asked Doc to escort her to Ophthalmology. I said I’d catch them up and slipped into the ladies’. Once they’d turned the corner, I whisked back into his office. I was about to grab the file from his desk when a nurse walked in. With one hand on the file, I bent down and pretended to tie my shoe. In the end, I had to wait another two weeks, until my next appointment, to proceed with my investigations. Doc Renal left the room for a few minutes when Reception called to say his next patient had arrived early. While he was gone I flicked through my file. My kidney donor was a Jacob Langendijk, originally from Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Later, on Google, I learned that Langendijk was a descendent of a lesser-known Dutch painter by the same name. A painter! Still lifes and landscapes. He’d immigrated to the US and had originally lived in upstate New York before moving to Maryland. My, oh my - a moment of discovery. Move over, Eloise masterpoints: I had me some Dutch Master genes!
I enrolled in two art classes, one drawing, one painting. And though I wasn’t looking for him, I got a boyfriend. Bud’s easel was next to mine. His dry sense of humor made me laugh - deadpan observations about how a for-shortened torso distorts the male reproductive anatomy - good thing women don’t normally see men from below. He wore shorts even though it was October and a cotton trilby, which announced: ‘let’s pretend I have hair on my head’. Train track scars from operations crossed his tanned brown knees. There was a patch of white skin on his brown thigh where they’d harvested a top layer for some patch up job. And, eureka! Bud was a fresco specialist. I invited him over to see my etchings - hee hee - and that was the beginning of our relationship.
By now my dining room wall had transformed into a 20 x 20 shimmering lake, somewhere in fantasy Mediterranea. I’d been working on it for months.
‘Those small waves - they catch the light,’ Bud nodded. ‘It’s a wan sun - a pale disk, good. And your clouds - high and thin, like pulled cotton candy.’ Close up on the right, I’d painted floating lotus in various stages of bloom. A handful boasted layered blooms – pink white petals facing the sky, tapered pink tips. Others were poised to open, like pregnant tulips. Another handful, in post-bloom stage were cone-shaped pods.
‘That’s real good,’ Bud pointed. ‘You got that magic lotus pod pocked with deep holes that have the seeds in ‘em. But the edges of the holes should be puckered.’
My smile faded and I pressed my teeth together. Since when was Bud an expert on lotus pods? He was the first visitor to make critical comments. Harumph! When I saw what he’d done in his own house, I swallowed my offended pride and fixed the holes to make them pucker. A Frank Stella-style crazy quilt collage took up the entire wall of his sitting room. Chagall animals floated in blue heaven on the ceiling of his bathroom. He’d painted Renaissance frescoes of river gods in his bedroom. On the kitchen wall hung a perfect Dutch still life of flowers and insects. In his studio he was working on a commission for the local school - a bright, modern abstract.
Bud took me dancing. Not his forté, but I was tickled anyway: he bobbed up and down and turned us ‘round, grinning like a five-year old: I felt like the pretty princess in a kindergarten play. And we practised bridge, which he was good at. He’d earned red master points. We played Honeymoon Bridge, just the two of us. His bidding tips were improving my game; Eloise crowed in delight when I made our contracts and managed my first grand slam. Bud took Mabel’s place at the bridge table for the weeks she was in hospital and recuperating - first time we’d ever had a man at our club and probably the last time, too, as he and Sadie made every contract and more points than anyone else. Plus, all the gals gushed and giggled over him; he was all smiles and puffed frog. Got me piping jealous.
Mabel’s new eye op happened after Christmas. They had only just learned how to transplant the eyeball and have it talk to the optic nerve - she was a guinea pig. I drove her to her sister’s place when she got out, where she would recuperate for a week. She grumbled about the bandages and the terrible hospital food and a lazy orderly who shirked bedpan duty.
‘Be patient, soon it’ll all be sweetness and light,’ I promised in my best Shandi imitation. Got that wrong. Mabel’s bandages came off and she returned to our group. But when her myopic glasses disappeared, so did her good nature. No sweetness and light. Not a jot on the makeovers me and Eloise had received: our transplants had pumped in positive vibes. Mabel was downright surly.
She wore a permanent frown, and fired it at her cards and her bridge partner, especially. If Sadie didn’t pull off a finesse, Mabel muttered. I even heard the f-word! When Mabel glared, her new eye grew bigger than the other one or maybe it just stuck out. Her foul comments gave me the heebee jeebies. Turned out these problems were small fry.
Eloise rang to tell me a box of silver teaspoons had gone missing. Delicate utensils with an ‘M’ engraved on their handles, for Charles’s family name. Charles wanted to fire Hanna. I protested: Hanna had been with Sadie for over ten years. It wouldn’t have taken her that long to clean out the entire silver service. Or Houdini the row of Faberge eggs that collected as much dust as compliments in the dining room. No, Hanna wouldn’t have filched the spoons. So who did? That got me wondering about Mabel’s bad mood - and her eye donor.
Even though she could have driven herself, I offered to take Mabel to her one-month checkup, in order to do some investigating. I didn’t tell her what I was up to - she’d have bitten my head off. The ophthalmologist never left the room. He put Mabel in a chair that sprouted metal arms ending in eyepieces. He levered multiple lenses in front of her face, clicking one set after another into place. The lenses obscured her from the neck up; she morphed into a grotesque - a human body with a bee’s head, made up of enormous, compound eyes.
‘Now?’ the ophthalmologist was asking, and ‘now?’ A click and another click as he slid one lens behind the last. Mabel’s monosyllabic grunts didn’t seem instructive; how was he supposed to know which lens was better?
The room was dark. I slowly slipped her file into my bag and excused myself to go to the ladies’. I gasped when I opened the file and saw the photograph; a scar-faced, dark-haired donor named Jasper Finns. Close-set eyes above an enormous, jutting jaw. I pulled out Bud’s smart phone and snapped photos of relevant pages. When I went back into the dark doctor’s office I slid the file back across the ophthalmologist’s desk, slow as molasses. Poirot strikes again.
Bud and I entered ‘Jasper Finns’ on the web that night. I felt faint when we read his obit. Mabel’s donor had died in a botched up bank robbery. He was an accomplished criminal, wanted in three states for larceny and grand theft. And now he was dead. Maybe his poor family had sold off his body parts to finance his funeral. I looked at Bud.
‘Did Finns’ eye take over Mabel’s behavior?’ I asked. ‘Like Langendijk’s kidney urged me to paint? Like Eloise’s heart made her a green hippy and found her Shandi? If that’s true, I wished we hadn’t found out who Mabel’s donor was.’
I showed Eloise the copied file. Her eyes got big. She sucked in her breath. It explained Mabel’s odd behavior. We decided to tell Sadie, right quick, so she and Charles wouldn’t fire Hanna. Mabel had stolen her silverware. We were sure of it. That was the easy part. What were we supposed to tell Mabel? We’d known Mabel for thirty years. She was our best buddy. But what if she continued her filching - and got caught? The police would be called; there’d be her fingerprints on the object to confirm the crime. Eloise and Sadie and I knew that the old Mabel would never do such a thing. But her new eye would. She would get arrested. And then what? We couldn’t blame her crimes on donor evidence in a possible trial. They’d laugh us out of the courtroom. And if we called the doctors to support our claim, they wouldn’t corroborate our evidence. An organ transplant worked in a body that needed it, the docs would insist. The new organ had no influence on the behavior of the recipient. Besides, I’d get arrested, too; it was against the law to learn who the donor was.
We decided to take things in our own hands. I watched Mabel like a hawk when we played bridge. Talk about Poirot; I didn’t have time to read my detective stories; I was too busy being one. Two weeks later it was time for the bridge group to play at my place. I told them I was putting on a lunch in honor of finishing my fresco - and the happy news that Bud and I were an item. They needed to dress up, I said; I would pull out all the stops, good china and polished silver service. I said this part nice and loud so Mabel would hear. The ladies were chuffed. Were me and Bud going to tie the knot? I shushed them. All would be revealed at the lunch; could they please gussy themselves up and come on over on Wednesday?
Bud and I hired Hanna and her daughter to help us prepare and serve on the day. He brought over his slide projector and a big screen and set it up in my dining room. On the wall over the cadenza my fresco was now complete. For a few days before the party Bud had been shuttling around the town on a special errand; on Tuesday he flashed me the thumbs up sign. Wednesday the ladies arrived, all combed and perfumed and bejeweled. Bud waggled his eyebrows at me when he took Mabel’s coat. Her velvet jacket had enormous, deep pockets: a thief’s perfect accomplice.
We all entered the dining room, my heart going a hundred miles an hour. Time for my fresco to make its debut. I wished I could have rigged up velvet curtains and whisked them open - ta da! Made my heart sing every time I was in the room. Oohs and aahs from the guests: my lakeside scene transformed the room, said Eloise. She commissioned me on the spot to paint a scene in her house. Sadie asked if Charles could come see - they might want something in the conservatory and would pay handsomely. When we were seated at the table, Hanna and her daughter served lunch. After dessert came the surprise.
I turned off all the lights; just how accommodating can one be for a novice thief? Bud had prepared a 15-minute slide show. We shouldn’t judge, just watch and listen - there was proof in this very room about the truth of what he was going to tell us. I sat quiet, gooseflesh prickling my arms. Up came the first slide: a photograph of Langendijk in his studio, easel in his left hand. The large pocket of his painting smock was bristling with brushes. We could see a corner of his canvas, a pastoral scene with a swathe of green, tiny cows and a few sheep and, in the distance, the white sails of a windmill. More slides of Langendijk’s works including a famous one that hung in the town hall in Amsterdam - a bird’s eye view of gabled buildings lining the canals that made concentric circles around the historic center. Bud told them my new kidney came from Langendijk; it had made me an artist. It was even landing me a few patrons, he smiled at Eloise and Sadie. Langendijk’s kidney had also given me an appetite for the Dutch Speculuus cookies of cinnamon and clove and nutmeg that we were having for dessert.
Then came slides of Melanie, Eloise’s donor: health goddess, with her yoga, raw food and smoothies, who had moved to Virginia from California a few years ago. Most of the ladies were staring at the slides open-mouthed by that time. Bud concluded by saying that it was my detective work that had discovered the link between donors and recipients; he was just putting the evidence on show. We didn’t know much about Mabel’s eye donor as yet, he then noted. OK, not exactly true but sensitive to Mabel, anyway. This whole organ transplant scene needed careful investigation. How lucky Eloise and I had been with our donors. Everything depended on who the part came from and we couldn’t know in advance if we were thinking about replacement parts, he said.
I was watching Mabel slide my big fish knife and fork serving utensils into her lap. Was it just luck that placed them on the empty platter right next to her right hand? Her shoulders were moving now - must be wiping them off in her napkin.
Now it was time for another surprise. Bud cleared his throat and said my detective work had inspired him. He turned and flicked on the lights. He said he and I had been troubled about the loss of Eloise’s silver. One day he happened to pass a pawnshop on 26th and Lexington. He was so glad he did because - he reached into the breast pocket of his sports jacket - look what he’d found. ‘All aces!’ He held up the six small spoons, engraved with the letter M, arranged like a hand of cards. Eloise gasped and stood up.
‘How on earth? However? Oh, you dear man!’ she was saying as she walked toward him. ‘Course I was watching Mabel, who’ d begun to stand up as well, eyebrows at her hairline, and had then sat downright quick. Was it my imagination or did I hear the rattle of my silver fish knife and fork in her pockets? Meantime Eloise was hugging and kissing Bud. He’d combed every pawnshop in the county. He turned to me and handed me a little box. ‘Found this for you there,’ he said, his face beet red. I swallowed hard and took the box. A diamond glinted on a silver band. Another band, delicately filigreed, lay beneath it. I brushed a tear away so my trembling lips wouldn’t show. I slipped the rings onto my fourth finger and smiled at him. ‘How do?’ he asked.
‘I do,’ I said quietly.
‘Me, too,’ said Bud.
The audience burst into applause and everyone stood up: hugs and kisses.
Then it was time for bridge. We played only two hands, on account of the time and as usual, Eloise and I cleaned up. We took honours with five hearts and I’ll bet her new one was babooming with pride beneath her silver Om pendent. Then the ladies put on coats and hats and filed out, chattering about donors and recipients. Mabel stood frowning and fidgeting in the hallway. ‘Where’s my coat?’ she snapped. I motioned for her to stay calm; Bud had probably put it in somewhere.
When everyone but Mabel had left, Bud and I both pretended to look for the missing coat. We returned empty handed.
‘Oh, that’s right, I put it in this coat cupboard,’ he said, opening the closet door. ‘Here it is!’ He pretended to misplace his foot and leaned heavily onto the door, which swung wide and bumped into Mabel’s right side. An unmistakable clink rang out and we both stopped moving and looked at her.
‘What have you got there?’ Bud asked, patting her pocket, all feigned innocence.
Mabel stepped forward to get her coat but Bud held it tight and, waited. After a moment she looked at him and at me. She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out my white linen napkin with the fish knife and fork. She handed them to me and stood blinking. Then a tear rolled down her cheek. The tear was from her old eye. The new eye probably had no tears to shed, being from a convicted criminal.
I took Mabel’s hand and led her back into the living room. We two sat on the sofa and Bud sat opposite in the armchair. Mabel was mumbling how she wasn’t herself. Out came the confession that she’d filched Eloise’s spoons and taken them to the pawnshop on 26th and Lex.
Then she was blowing her nose and saying ‘sorry’. Bud opened a drawer and pulled out a folder. He took out several photos of the scar-faced Jasper Finns and handed them to Mabel. This was her donor, he explained. Her hands trembled as they held the photos. Finns, wanted for grand larceny before he’d died in the bank robbery said the print.
‘Why would a criminal donate his organs?’ Mabel whispered unsteadily. ‘They’re not altruistic by nature.’
‘I wondered the same thing,’ I told her. After more investigating I’d found a copy of Jasper’s driver’s license and organ donation was ticked. He’d donated a kidney when he was in his thirties. People could manage with one kidney, I explained. It would have been 15 years earlier, about the time he was first caught burglarizing. I told Mabel about the high demand for organs, how desperate the recipients were, how kidneys fetched a good price.
‘So he sold the organs for money!’ she exclaimed. ‘Must have been desperate.’
‘I guess so. And the organ donation box was still ticked when he died, so his eye went to you.’
She was silent. She opened her purse and fished out a bulky wallet. ‘I don’t mean to do it. Something comes over me,’ she said. ‘I get all worried and nervous. I steal something - then I sell it. I bring the money home. Then I get nervous for having taken it.’ She blinked. ‘It’s only happened a few times.’
‘Did you take things from other people?’
‘Just a few other things.’ She had begun extracting ten-dollar bills.
‘And you sold them?’
‘I could see if they’re still at the pawn shop.’ She handed Bud a bundle of bills. ‘That’s for the spoons you bought back for Sadie.’ Bud took the bills and nodded his thanks.
‘Why don’t we go together to look for the other things you took?' I offered. ‘Now.’
Mabel and I drove to the east side where the have-nots live. Townhouses were crammed along the streets, too many teeth in a mean mouth: sagging front porches, boarded up windows, walls in need of paint, roofs in need of repair. Trash dotted the sidewalks. I asked Mabel about her savings and she assured me she had plenty to live on, never wanted for anything, it wasn’t that. It was the feeling that came over her; a ‘devil made me do it’ feeling.
‘That’s Jasper’s eye thinking for you,’ I said.
‘Not anymore it won’t,’ she said.
The first pawnshop she directed me to was on Mulberry Street next to a vacant lot. Chicken wire mesh lined the inside of the window and there was a thick, metal, roll-up shutter at the top for when the shopkeeper went home at night. Inside there was a clutter of cameras and fancy clothes and a whole glass counter of jewelry and pens and silver. She went straight to the counter and pointed at a small Tiffany clock. The shopkeeper, a beanpole with a thin moustache, wanted twice what he’d paid her for it. She protested and pulled the receipt out of her wallet - but he wouldn’t budge, there’d been someone in just yesterday thinking about buying it.
Mabel counted out the bills and put them on the counter. We left with the clock in her bag. Her face wore a little frown.
‘How will I get this back to the owner?’ she asked me.
‘Same way you took it, Light-fingers.’ I said. We went to another shop, where the silver salt and pepper shakers she’d placed with them had already been sold. She took the money and we climbed into my car. She would leave the money in the store she’d taken them from. So she’d robbed from stores as well as private citizens.
‘Mabel, just call me or come on over, if your big eye starts bossing you around’, I said, kissing her goodbye that day. And she did come, once or twice a week, to watch me paint a fresco in Sadie’s conservatory. Maybe watching me stopped her pulling off the grand heist of the century.
Bud and I tied the knot in Sadie’s conservatory with the bridge club ladies and a few relatives as our witnesses. The fresco I’d painted for them made a perfect backdrop, another watery scene with flowers and plants that cousined what bloomed in their garden. I couldn’t stop smiling. We were going on a Rhine river cruise for our honeymoon. There was bridge and dancing on-board. Ooohs and ahhs from the congregation. After the ceremony, Mabel came over to tell me she had discovered a new hobby. A friend of hers owned a booth in a monthly antiques market. She’d started to bring things to sell on commission, her own things, from decades of dust collecting in her house. She paid a percentage for participating and had begun to make a small profit. It felt good to clean out her house, she said. Then she looked at me. She’d caught a would-be thief, taking a china figurine from their stall. Big smile from me when she said that. Her friend was mighty impressed that she had caught him. Last month Mabel became a partner in the stall: she and her sharp eye had been invited into the business.
I’m not sure if any more bridge club ladies are planning a transplant. But if they do, I know they’ll be over at our place, lickety split, to find out just who’s sparking their insides.