Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
TEN DAYS AND TEN NIGHTS
After her husband died, well-meaning friends suggested Sandy take her first trip without him. She was a newly retired speech therapist with a hefty pension, while Richard, who had failed gloriously in several business ventures, had gotten back on his feet again, earning good money by selling hand-purifying products to supermarkets and restaurants in the Philadelphia area. The living room of their Elkins Park condo was an homage to their travels, particularly Sedona, Arizona. Sitting shiva after Richard’s death, friends remarked on the beautiful obsidian-blue coffee table that reflected everything set upon it, whether candies and pretzels or tortilla chips and salsa the mourners brought in.
Friends and family were wonderful. Richard had a way of making new friends, a “collector,” his wife had called him. And there they were – Meg and Mike Lokoff from their condo, fiery human rights advocates; popular liberal Republican congressman Dmitri Petrakis and his wife Nora, and Jade and Matt Greene, a young vegetarian couple he had met at a MoveOn rally.
Sandy Rosenberg learned about “Elite Tours for Seniors” from her cousin Ellen. She did her research and three months after Richard’s death she was aboard a luxurious coach – you daren’t refer to it as a “bus” – to points south, including New Orleans, which she had always longed to visit, ever since reading as a teenager “Raintree County” by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
She did not regret her decision the first day on the bus. It was at night that she realized what a mistake she had made. The trip would be an endurance test, how to endure the sorrow of missing her husband which was a thousand-fold worse while on the road.
At home, Richard was still with her. His presence - his smell, the tiny hairs from his beard she found while vacuuming, his overstuffed socks drawer with his monogrammed white hankies - all this surrounded her and gave her comfort despite his sad departure over the eleven months the cancer had returned and set about devouring him, tissue by tissue.
The people on the bus were nice enough. The name of every passenger was stenciled above their seat and there you sat the entire time. Wandering the aisles was forbidden for legal reasons. Ridiculous, she thought. Quickly the forty-five passengers became a little family, traveling seventy miles an hour down interstate highways, as scenes passed by too quickly to contemplate: red clay earth, musky rivers, ramshackle houses, mansions with red tiled roofs, cotton fields with eye-catching white puffs and tall swaying leaves of corn. Sandy knew in advance she would shuck off that horrible word “widow” and tell inquiring minds she and her husband often took separate vacations, which had been true. Why make herself miserable by telling people Richard was dead? Her shiny oblong-shaped turquoise ring, from Sedona, glittered on her ring finger and gave the lie that all was well. At times, she even believed that Richard was waiting for her at home.
A short chunky balding man named Douglas Conway was Elite Tours’ “escort.” He stood at the front of the bus with a microphone and narrated some of the famous places the bus passed. “The planes flying overhead are from Washington D.C’s Dulles International Airport. If you’ve ever been there, you may have seen the birdlike building designed by the famous Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.
“On the right is the stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play.”
The men on the bus were particularly interested in this.
“Doug knows everything,” said the elderly widow named Freda who sat next to Sandy. She knew when to talk and when to keep quiet.
Sandy nodded and quickly fell asleep. The bus was a perfect sleep tonic. So many of her friends took sleeping pills, since the older you got, the harder it was to sleep. She and Richard simply enjoyed falling asleep wrapped in one another’s arms.
Suddenly Sandy felt someone nudging her arm.
“Sandy, did you see that?”
Summarily awakened, she bolted upright.
“What, what happened?”
“It’s Doug,” said Freda and pointed to the front of the bus.
And there he was sprawled out face down on the floor. Paul, the bus driver, was giving instructions to several passengers who had moved forward to help. The first aid kit was fetched from a high shelf and Doug was helped to a sitting position on the floor.
“The damn traffic,” said Paul, “I had to slam on my brakes so I wouldn’t hit that black Lexus that cut me off.”
When Doug stood up and leaned against the front seat, everyone could see a huge bump sprouting like a mushroom next to his eyebrow.
“That poor man,” Sandy said to white-haired Freda.
“Oh, he gets paid plenty. I’ve been with him on several trips. It’s hardly the end of the world.”
Nothing, thought Sandy, is the end of the world, except for Richard when he closed his eyes for the last time. He lay dying in the bedroom in a special bed they’d purchased years earlier after seeing a convincing commercial on television. When the topic of sleeping at home in one’s bed came up, Sandy began to describe their bed, omitting that it became his sarcophagus.
“You’ll never believe this, dear,” said Freda. “My late husband, Artie, may he rest in peace, sold these very same Dyno-Matic beds.” She paused and laughed. “He made a fortune.”
The first of the ten nights on the road was spent in a Hampton Inn in southern Virginia. Sandy and Freda wheeled their suitcases to the elevator and promised to see one another for the continental breakfast the next morning.
Sandy slid the plastic card into the lock on the fifth floor and let herself into the room. How nice! The lights had been turned on in a welcoming gesture. Dinner had been a couple hours earlier at a rest stop, lit up like a stadium in the dark of the night. All she wanted to do was sleep. She’d shower in the morning. And sleep she did until the blast of a television set next door woke her. It was impossible to fall back to sleep.
Visions of Richard swarmed over her like bees zooming out of their hive. Getting out of bed in her long yellow silk pajamas, she paced around the room, pressing her face into her hands. Before she knew it, she was shaking with sobs. Her tears flowed unstoppable. Worst of all, she was filled with a sense of emptiness, a hole in her stomach that felt like a cannonball had ripped it open.
She was panic-stricken. Nothing like this had ever happened to her.
“Richard, what should I do?” she cried out.
Still in her yellow pajamas, she padded barefoot down the carpeted hallway, pocket book in hand. There it was. Her savior. Not Christ almighty, but a vending machine, all lit up and reflecting her own image. She studied all the offerings to choose from. She poured all her change and her dollar bills into the machine as if she were playing blackjack at Bally’s Casino in Jersey, then listened to the comforting chuck-chuck-chuck as the snacks poured out. Gathering them in her arms she trotted back to her room, spread them out on the bed as if it were Halloween and lay on top of them, still shaking with fright.
“What has gotten into me?” she wondered. Should she call someone? She retrieved her cell phone from her purse and clung to the cold metal, telling herself she’d call someone if she must. Meantime, she unwrapped the shiny orange wrapper of a Reese bar and nibbled on the rich chocolate and peanut butter. Finishing that, she popped open the top of a Diet Coke, which fizzled all over the bedspread. She swished it around her mouth, then went into the bathroom and spat it into the toilet. She hated sodas. She picked up a white washcloth and dabbed around her mouth, then returned to the bed. What next? Hating herself, she reached for the easily recognizable green bag of Herr’s Sour Cream and Onion potato chips. “Please,” she prayed. “Let me enjoy this.”
The television droned in the adjoining room as she ripped open the bag, dipped her red-manicured nails inside the bag, and pulled out some greasy chips which tasted perfectly marvelous. She got up from the bed and walked around the room.
Pulling a pillow from the bed, she lay down on the carpet and fell asleep.
Aboard the bus, Doug acted like a flight attendant, walking down the aisle and taking orders for drinks and snacks. Richard had always liked bloody marys so Sandy ordered one, confiding to Freda, “My husband’s favorite.” Doug handed her a see-through plastic cup with a tiny red straw attached. Not bad, she thought, and clinked the ice in rhythm to the wheels of the bus.
“Richard,” she thought, “I see why you like this.” A feeling of warmth and nonchalance overtook her, as she leaned her head on the head rest.
The days passed by in a blur of doing. Sandy wrote a postcard with a picture of the late Martin Luther King to her cousin Ellen. “Will never forget Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where MLK, his dad and granddad preached. Nice red carpet.” Sandy didn’t mention she slipped a ten-dollar bill in the collections box to help refurbish the church, whose floors, in particular, needed restoration from the thousands of visitors each year.
Finally, they were there. The Big Easy.
“New Orleans, here we come!” The bus driver Paul became suddenly animated.
“On the right!” shouted Doug from the front of the bus. “See that sign! We’re entering the parish of Ville de La Nouvelle-Orléans or Orleans Parish. The city is ninety percent rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.”
The passengers applauded. Standard behavior on bus trips, Sandy learned. Clapping.
“We made it! Good job Paul!” said the passengers in unison.
“Paul is going to get a huge tip from me,” said Freda.
“Tip? We’re supposed to tip them?”
“Well, it’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s nice, a nice thing to do.”
Doug, wearing shorts with many pockets, ordered everyone from the back of the bus to exit first. The passengers twisted their way down the narrow aisle, then stepped cautiously off the bus. They were seniors after all. Elite seniors. Sandy made sure she took Paul’s hand as he waited for everyone on the sidewalk below. Men, she loved them.
She wanted to walk alone through the huge park which Doug suggested was a good starting point for the New Orleans traveler. She felt awed by a Catholic church with three spires beaming in the distance. Being confined to the bus all day made a person yearn for freedom. Her feet fairly danced through the park. So much to see. Couples with linked arms, moms pushing babies in strollers, benches where people sat eating snacks and drinking beer. “I’m coming back to life, Richard,” she whispered. She found a bench and sat down in her white capris and striped navy top. She clicked her sandals together and remembered how she and Richard loved to go dancing. They took ballroom dancing lessons so they could dance at his daughter Heather’s wedding by a prior marriage.
Vendors were everywhere in the park. One strolled nearby. She looked the young man in the eye and he walked over to her, pushing his jangling cart. Sandy peered inside, while the young man spoke, ascertaining it was her first time in the city.
“Do you like fish?”
“I love fish,” she said enunciating each word like the speech therapist she was.
“May I suggest you try our famous Crawfish Grilled Cheese Sandwich?”
She made a face. And looked up at him.
He picked up a sandwich, kept hot under a steamer, and asked her to taste it.
Sandy took a tiny bite.
“Oh my God. Un-be-lievable!”
As was the price. Everything was cheaper down south. She also bought some honey-roasted peanuts, for later, back at the hotel.
That night the bus picked everyone up at 8:15 and headed for the famous French quarter. Doug read off some of the street names: Bourbon Street, Basin Street, Canal Street. “Get this,” he said, his voice rising. “We cherish history here – unlike New York City, where you’ve got those boring numbered streets and avenues. No wonder the city hasn’t amounted to much.”
He waited for the trickle of laughter.
“And that fellow Napoleon,” he continued. “He may have died back in 1821 on the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic, but we cherish history here, so we’ve named our streets after some of his famous battles like….”
“Waterloo,” called out Fritz, who sat in front of Sandy and Freda.
“Go on,” said Doug.
“Marengo. Austerlitz,” he said, his voice rising.
Doug walked over and gave him a high five.
As they exited onto Bourbon Street, it was impossible to believe it was night time. Colored lights fairly blinded your eyes. People on balconies, like in A Streetcar Named Desire, tossed down trinkets for tourists to catch mid-air. Sandy caught a navy-blue beaded necklace and put it around Freda’s neck. She caught a silver one for herself. The noise from the people in the balconies, their music, and their shouting was a cacophony of joy. “What did it remind her of?” she wondered. Aha, the sounds in the Citizens Bank Stadium where she and Richard watched their beloved Phillies’ baseball games.
Unlike anywhere she had ever been, these New Orleanians, or whatever they were called, simply loved having fun. Walking along next to Freda, with her silver necklace bobbing against her chest, she spotted two women standing bare-chested on a balcony with a black wrought-iron railing. Sandy nudged Freda and pointed upward. The women on the balcony waved, breasts bouncing up and down, to the crowd below. Sandy waved back.
“That’s what you call ‘free spirits,’” said her elderly companion.
Following Doug, ducking in and out behind masses of reveling walkers, the group visited two well-known night clubs. Fritzel's European Jazz Club and Funky Butt, where the entertainment was up close and in your face. For a moment, Sandy forgot who and where she was, her face lit up like a candelabra. She ordered a Kahlua and Cream in both clubs, delighting at its coffee taste and feeling a slight buzz in her head. When it was time to board the bus and return to their hotel, she informed Paul and Doug not to worry, she would walk home. The hotel was only ten minutes away.
Comfortable in her navy-blue sweater and white capris - and nursing a paper cup of Kahlua and Cream - she retraced her steps, staring skyward at all those brave celebrants whose only calling was: rejoice. They did this every single night of the week. Year-round. How envious she felt of their joie de vivre.
Three people stood on one of the balconies. From their view, they could see Sandy with her short black crown of hair and her swinging set of silver beads rocking along her chest. A young man leaned over the balcony. “C’mon up!” he shouted.
She smiled. And nodded her head.
They looked innocent enough.
In a flash, he was downstairs, and leading her gently inside the door. She followed him upstairs onto the balcony. Music was booming from inside the house.
“Look who I found!” he said to the others on the balcony, holding Sandy’s hand, and introducing them to one another.
“You like our city?” young Rita asked.
“I love it!” she exclaimed. “Absolutely love it. We came by bus, all the way from Philadelphia.”
They motioned for her to sit down in a white wicker chair with tiny flowered cushions. She quickly looked over the balcony at the revelers below.
She was so happy she thought her head would explode. And took another sip of Kahlua.
White-haired Barbara said she must go inside. She was feeling cold. Soon everyone followed. They sat on a red leather sectional while Christmas lights fluttered on and off, even though Christmas was months away. Sandy remembered a line from A Streetcar Named Desire where Marlon Brando, after ravishing Blanche, had reminded Stella, who he was attempting to lure back, how “colored lights” had enhanced their lovemaking.
“Refresh your drink?” asked Robert, whose name was pronounced the French way. He had skin the color of café au lait and spoke with a southern twang.
“I’m fine,” smiled Sandy.
“I’m going to brew some coffee,” said young red-haired Rita. They all agreed it was a good idea.
Rita brought the coffees out from the kitchen on a gray, hot and steaming.
“Guess I’ve got to sober up sometime,” laughed Sandy.
Robert and Rita were a couple, she learned, and Barbara was Rita’s mother. The couple worked in the post office. Barbara was ailing, and her hands shook slightly while she sipped on her coffee.
“It’s sad,” said Rita, who wore a low-cut black blouse, “but Mom’s cancer came back. She’s doing well with the chemo.”
Barbara put down her coffee and grabbed a hold of her huge mound of curly white hair.
“Voila!” she said, lifting off her wig and laughing.
Sandy was silent, not knowing what to say.
“I hope we haven’t shocked you, miss,” said Robert.
“Shocked, yes. But it’s not what you think. I’m going to tell you a secret I haven’t told a soul on my trip to New Orleans.” She began to fiddle with her silver necklace.
“On August 28, I lost my husband to cancer. The two of us met in a bar in downtown Philadelphia, where we shared some drinks and some cigarettes.” She sipped on her coffee. “Love at first sight, you might say. We were never apart again. Sometimes I think I’m going to lose my mind when I remember I’ll never see my Richard again.”
She reached into her pocket book and fished out her smart phone, with a photo of the two of them together. She smiled as she passed around the lifelike photo of tall Richard, with his barely shaven beard, and herself leaning against him, tousling his steel-gray hair.
“That’s my Richard, for what it’s worth.”
Rita took the picture in her hands and rubbed her thumb along Richard’s visage. “A fine man,” she said. “A handsome man. Look how he loves you. And he always will. Even in eternity.”
Sandy took Rita’s hand in her own. “Thank you for listening to my story, Rita. And Robert and Barbara. I wonder if I was supposed to come all the way to New Orleans, or as you people say, ‘N’orleans,’ so I could find a bit of peace from my sorrow.”
They all kissed goodbye, first one cheek, then the other. Robert led Sandy down the staircase and they hugged goodbye at the front door.
Outdoors, the revelers were in full swing, but Sandy was in her own private world as she walked back to the hotel, fingering her silver beads, as if they were the rosary.
Back at LaQuinto Hotel, Sandy slipped into her yellow pajamas and sat on the soft bed. Reaching into her pocket book, she took out the honey-roasted peanuts and chewed on each one thoughtfully.
“Richard,” she finally said when she pulled the blankets over her. “I give up. Here I am in New Orleans, Louisiana, my lifelong dream. And I meet you here?”
The bus ride home took only four days, four days sitting on the plush burgundy colored seats, with the little trays that came forward to hold your drinks and your snacks. She always requested peanut butter crackers from Doug, with an occasional cream cheese and chive filling. Sandy replayed her French Quarter adventure over and over in her mind, each time remembering something new.
White-haired Barbara said she had lost her fear of cancer once she realized the specialists were doing their very best for her. “It’s in God’s hands now,” she had told Sandy, “whether I will live or die.”
Freda, looking up from her paperback, said, “Well, it won’t be long now before we’ll be sleeping in our own beds.”
“Can’t wait,” said Sandy.
“Your husband will be so happy to see you,” said Freda.
By the time she stepped off the bus for the last time, tipping both Paul and Doug with a crisp twenty apiece, she had planned out her future. Of course she would stay in her condo. She loved it and Richard would wait for her – he was their condo – he was the air she breathed and the carpet she walked on.
The cab dropped her off at 312 Meetinghouse Road. Jingling her keys in her hand, she turned the latch of her condo, fully expecting Richard to be seated in his short blue terrycloth robe, sitting and reading the Philadelphia Inquirer. Perhaps even drafting one of his numerous Letters to the Editor.
“Oh, dammit, Richard,” she said. “How forgetful I am.”
She went into their bedroom and opened up a drawer of the end table on his side of the bed. Without looking, she scooped up three packages of Kool Menthol cigarettes in their inviting green package.
“Darling,” she said out loud. “I’ve been meaning to do this since that dreadful day in August.”
Clutching the three green packs of Kool Menthols, she walked into the courtyard of their condo, where the blue sky shimmered above.
Hidden behind a white fence was a huge green Dumpster. She entered and like one of the Phillies’ pitchers, tossed the deadly cigarettes that killed her husband straight into the Dumpster.
“Damn you, Richard,” she cried. “Damn you.”
Back home, she curled up in their huge bed, clutching a pair of his blue pajamas. “I missed you, Richard,” she said. As the words slipped from her mouth, she realized the feeling that a squirrel was gnawing in her stomach was gone, and that a calmness prevailed over her grieving body.