Lill and I were sitting by the fireplace when Myrtle Grabinowitz, former beauty queen now the self-styled belle of Brookside Retirement Community, and one of the chief reasons Lill nicknamed the place Babbling Book, came up to us.
“We have a new resident,” Myrtle announced, plopping onto the sofa next to Lill and bouncing her a good foot in the air. Lill grabbed for the armrest as Myrtle settled herself and her garments came to a rest around her.
“Oh yes, we know,” Lill said, tentatively loosening her hold on the armrest. “I expect everyone knows.” She sounded uncharacteristically snippy, but I think that’s just because the men in charge of the new resident’s household goods had been traipsing back and forth past Lill’s window for the better part of the day.
“Not one of those men moved five feet without yelling at one of the others about where to stick whatever it was they were carrying,” Lill had told me when I’d stopped by to pick her up for dinner. “I had an idea or two about where they could stick it, I’ll tell you that.”
“I hear she’s very attractive,” Myrtle said, adjusting her bracelets with a mix of cha-chings.
“I swear there were ten wardrobe boxes,” Lill said. “Three-man jobs, they were. The woman has enough clothes, she could change twice a day for a year and still not get through it all. And then there were four huge paintings, and a dining set that looked like it should be in a palace somewhere. I can’t imagine how they fitted it all in. Don’t we have fire codes?”
“Oh my. I didn’t see all that,” Myrtle said, her hand on her heart as if to keep it from jumping from her chest.
“I would have preferred not to see it,” Lill said. “It was terribly annoying.”
“Did you see her?” Myrtle asked.
“No, I didn’t.”
“I expect she’ll be at dinner, don’t you think?” Myrtle said.
“Possibly.” But after Lill’s report, I had little interest in meeting the new person.
The gong sounded, and the three of us walked to the dining room together. Thankfully, once there, Myrtle left us to join other friends, leaving Lill and me free to choose a two-person table.
As I was telling the server my entrée preference, a stir passed through the room. I paused and looked around. A woman was posing—there was no other word for it—in the entryway. I nudged Lill and moved my head to point her out.
“Wow,” Lill said.
The woman’s hair, arranged into a blond upsweep, appeared to have had the attention of a professional in the last five minutes, and if she had any gray hairs, they’d been effectively dealt with. As for her makeup, which included fake eyelashes, mascara, and crimson lipstick, it was fit to walk all by itself on the red carpet at an awards ceremony. Her outfit was coordinated in shades of blue, and she was wearing shoes with heels. I don’t believe I’ve worn heels since the first Bush presidency.
Our manager, Mrs. Gowan, stood at the woman’s side and glanced around the room, obviously deciding which table would have the privilege of the first introduction. I turned my head so Mrs. Gowan couldn’t catch my eye. Lill did the same, and we both breathed a sigh of relief when the two headed toward one of the larger tables across the room. Shortly, we heard happy exclamations of welcome.
Lill shook her head. “I suspect that’s someone we’re going to want to avoid whenever we can.”
“Why do you say that?” I knew I wasn’t interested in meeting someone who was that focused on their appearance. In my experience, such people are often dull companions, since that amount of upkeep means they have little time to take an interest in the world around them. But I was interested in Lill’s opinion.
“I expect I’m just feeling unenthusiastic because of spending the day dealing with all her stuff. I’m sure she’s a lovely person.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right. Lovely.”
~ ~ ~
“I think the least you can do is play with us occasionally, Josephine.”
Uh-oh. On my own and trapped by Myrtle. A nightmare scenario.
“After all, you invented the game. But then you ran off. To Australia with that Norman person.” Her tone was jocular. “Not very thoughtful!” She punched me lightly on the arm.
I moved out of reach and gave her a fake smile. “But you’ve already heard all my stories.” Even more important, I’d heard all hers. More than once.
“I’m proposing this game to welcome our newest resident. Surely, you can’t want anyone else thinking you’re not very friendly?”
This is precisely the reason I try to avoid Myrtle. The woman is relentless and she plays dirty, and I’m not talking just poker. Besides, after my sighting of the new resident, I’m not all that eager to meet her.
“How about you invite Norman, and I’ll give Lillian a call,” Myrtle continued, clearly unfazed by my lack of enthusiasm.
“Norman’s busy and so am—”
“Goodie,” said Lill. I hadn’t noticed her arriving on the scene, but she’d obviously heard most of Myrtle’s proposal.
“No ‘goodie’ for me, thank you.” I gave Lill a squelching look that she ignored. “I have errands to run.”
“You can run your errands tomorrow,” Lill said. “A game will be good for you. Help keep those brain cells turning over.” It’s clear she’s fully recovered from the trauma of the new resident’s arrival.
“My brain cells are turning over perfectly well.”
“Can’t be too sure of that,” Myrtle said, stepping closer to Lill, making it two to one.
“Oh, all right. What time?”
“Fine,” I said with a humph.
“And don’t forget to ask Norman to join us,” Myrtle said with a titter before going on her way.
I scowled at Lill. “Norman’s working. And you know I have no patience for Myrtle’s beauty-pageant stories.”
“Which means we just have to make sure someone else loses more than she does.”
“I could find another friend.”
Lill chortled. “Doubt it. Your reputation precedes you. Besides, I’m irreplaceable.” And irrepressible. At eighty-something, Lill has a zest for life that I continue to envy.
“I thought you weren’t interested in meeting the woman?”
“Changed my mind. I find I’m rather intrigued by someone who manages to look that put together all the time.”
I sighed. “If we don’t want Myrtle to be the biggest loser, we better get our signals straight.”
“Just bluff her into a big pot a couple of times, then fold, no matter what cards you’re holding.”
“But that might mean I’d have to tell a story. And I really don’t want to.”
“Oh, Josephine, for Pete’s sake, make something up.”
“Against the rules.”
“Your rules, your problem.”
~ ~ ~
The new resident’s name is Charlotte “you can call me Lottie” Watson. Today she’s dressed in a black-and-white outfit with touches of red that match her lips, fingernails, and shoes.
“My goodness,” Lill said, shaking Lottie’s hand. “You can’t possibly be old enough to live here.”
That was my thought as well, but I sure wasn’t going to say it out loud. And it wasn’t the sort of thing Lill usually said either.
“How did you talk them into letting you in?” Lill continued.
“Forged birth certificate.” Lottie’s smug look was at odds with the otherwise careful way she was presenting herself.
“I’m Josephine Bartlett.”
“Oh yes, Myrt here has told me all about you. It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Likewise.” The thought of what Myrtle—Myrt?—might have told Lottie had me suppressing a shudder.
“So, Lottie, why did you choose Brookside?” Lill asked as we took our seats at the table.
“It was either this or a first-class cabin on the Queen Mary II.”
“Oh,” Myrtle said, her eyes going wide. “If that had been my choice, I think I might have chosen the Queen Mary.”
Lottie shrugged. “I worried I might get seasick, so that made this the better choice.”
“And has it been?” I asked.
“What’s not to like? My meals are all prepared and served to me, my apartment is cleaned regularly, and if I need anything, even a light bulb changed, all I have to do is pick up the phone.” She paused, but I didn’t think she was finished yet. “There’s been only one downside so far.”
“And that is?” Myrtle said.
“The weekly Things to Do bulletin. Do they really need to put the funeral announcements on the front page?”
“I suppose not,” Myrtle said with a thoughtful look.
“Where did you live before this?” I asked in an attempt to move the conversation along.
“I had a lovely house in Indian Hill. It sold for over five million.” Her hand came up and smoothed her hair. Preening was the word that came to mind.
“If you had such a fabulous house, why sell it?” Myrtle said.
“Because it was getting to be such a pain. It always seemed to need some sort of maintenance or repair. And let me tell you, finding a good handyman isn’t easy, no matter how much money you have. But the final straw was when my cook left and I couldn’t find a replacement. Even an illegal, if you can believe that, and I hate to cook. I finally decided enough was enough and told myself, ‘Lottie, my girl, you owe it to yourself to live in a place where you don’t have to worry about all that piddly stuff.’”
“I hate to cook too,” Myrtle said. “And may I just say, I’m so glad you chose to move here.”
Lottie looked pleased. “Why, so am I.”
“Shall we get started?” I said.
We cut for the deal, and Myrtle won that. The beginning of a streak, I sincerely hoped. I passed out the paper clips we use to bet with as Myrtle told Lottie the rules.
“We call it naked poker because the biggest loser of the day has to tell a down-and-dirty story about herself.”
Lottie looked startled. “I thought we were playing for money.” And it appeared that would definitely be her preference.
“Oh no.” Myrtle dealt the cards. “We find we much prefer paper clips.”
Since I was sitting across from Lottie, I watched her intently as she picked up her cards. Her lips firmed, but whether that meant the cards were very good or very bad, I didn’t yet know.
I filed the tell away and switched my attention to Myrtle. She was beaming at her cards. Honestly, she’s one of the luckiest people I know with getting good cards, but also the worst at capitalizing on them, because anyone playing with her for five minutes knows whether she has a winning hand or not. Although it must be acknowledged she has managed to fake me out a time or two.
Lill’s an excellent player who never gives away what she’s holding with even a flicker of an unmascaraed eyelash.
“Which wing do you live in, Lottie?” I asked.
The various wings in Brookside’s main building are designated by flower/bird name combinations that then are shortened for convenience. Lill and I are in the Morning Glory/Mourning Dove wing known as GloryDove, and Myrtle lives in the Snapdragon/Titmouse wing known more familiarly as SnapTit.
“Meadow Lark something,” Lottie said, shaking her head and focusing on her cards.
“Meadowlark Lemon.” Lill chortled. “Love that name. LarkLemon was my choice when I moved here, but there were no vacancies.”
“Why was that your choice?” Lottie said, frowning.
“Because of Meadowlark Lemon, of course.”
Lottie looked blank. And let me just go on the record here that anyone too young to remember the Globetrotters’ star player is too young for Brookside. In my humble opinion.
As this chitchat was proceeding, so was the game, with each of us anteing up and then asking for additional cards, or holding on to what we’d gotten in the first place. As usual, I didn’t have anything worth even a halfhearted bluff.
I folded early, which gave me a chance to observe the others.
Lottie was clearly a knowledgeable player, and the first hand boiled down to her and Myrtle as the last women standing. Myrtle finally called, and Lottie fanned out her cards to reveal an inside straight. But then Myrtle laid down a royal flush.
Maybe I wouldn’t have to lose a hand or two to Myrtle after all.
Lottie lost half her clips on that first hand, and it went downhill for her from there. Each of us won subsequent pots until Lottie, who tended to bet extravagantly, was left blinking with surprise at her remaining two clips.
“My goodness. You’re all terrific players. Good thing we didn’t play for money or you could have wiped me out.”
“We don’t want anybody walking away from this table with less than they came with,” Myrtle said in her most self-important voice. “We’re your friends. And we intend to stay that way.”
I raised an eyebrow at Lill, whose lips firmed in an obvious attempt not to laugh.
At the sound of a snapping finger and a hiss from a passing staff member, we all looked up, and the one man in the room hunkered down behind his newspaper.
“Uh-oh,” Myrtle said. “I do believe that was a Prudence Parker alert.”
“What’s that?” Lottie asked.
Myrtle raised a shushing hand. “Just wait and see.”
Soon, a scooter and its driver appeared in the doorway. The scooter driver’s head swiveled and locked in on the man behind the paper.
“Penis! Don’t think I don’t see you there. Penis!”
“What in the world?” Lottie’s eyes widened in obvious shock.
“That’s Pru Parker,” Lill said. “And you don’t have to worry, you’re safe. Unless you plan to cut your hair short and wear slacks. Pru doesn’t see so good.”
While Lottie was being clued in, Pru maneuvered her scooter over in front of the man. He jumped to his feet and made a hasty retreat, leaving pages of newspaper floating in his wake.
“Shouldn’t she be in a secure unit?” Lottie said.
“Why?” I said. “Just because she scoots around pointing out men?”
“In a very loud, aggressive tone of voice.”
“Lots of people here talk in loud voices,” I said. “It’s rather common, actually.”
“But she could be violent.”
“Admittedly, Pru is one of our more eccentric residents. But she’s basically harmless.”
Lottie’s mouth fell open.
“Trying to catch a fly?” I’m convinced Pru on her scooter could outmaneuver race-car driver Mario Andretti. While I’d been talking, she’d rolled up behind our table and was examining us closely, I assume to ensure there were no stray penises hiding amongst us.
“Humph. We don’t have to take it, you know. It’s our turn now.” Then she whipped the scooter into a turn and whirred away.
“What does she mean?” Lottie said.
“We think she’s referring to the fact many of Brookside’s residents are women who have outlived their husbands, so we should no longer have to put up with men,” I said.
“Does she do that to all the men?”
“Yep,” Lill said. “Gotten so they scatter like they’ve just robbed a bank whenever there’s a sighting. I say it’s good for them. Gets them to exercise more.”
Myrtle gathered up the cards, bracelets clattering. Show me a picture of just the hands of the women sitting around this table, and I’d be able to match them to the woman they belong to with no difficulty. Myrtle’s are plump, and she wears two rings on each hand that were clearly put in place when her fingers were considerably thinner. Lill’s hands, the only black ones, are as narrow and spare as she is. Lottie has unattractive hands with stubby fingers, but she’s attempted to overcome that deficit with elongated fingernails that are painted crimson. Her right hand is weighted down, literally, by an enormous diamond that could also serve as a weapon.
My own hands are ringless and my nails are short and unpolished. My distinguishing feature is the slightly bent third finger on my right hand. I injured it years ago, and lately it’s begun to look even more bent, although luckily, despite the fact it looks like it might hurt, it doesn’t. And there you have the four of us. It would make for an interesting picture, come to think of it.
Myrtle clucked her tongue. “Okay, moving right along here, folks. Time for that story, Lottie.”
“This story. It has to be personal?”
Myrtle tapped the cards into place. “The very first time we played naked poker, the woman who lost told us she seduced her sister’s fiancé and then told him she was pregnant so he had to marry her instead. And, of course, I’ve shared my humiliation as a finalist in the Miss Ohio pageant.” She sniffed, but I happen to know she loves sharing her so-called humiliation at the Miss Ohio pageant. After all, it’s the perfect way to let everyone know she was in the pageant. Something, I have no doubt, that was the highlight of her life.
“I see.” Lottie folded her hands on top of the table without the jangling that accompanies every move Myrtle makes. “Okay, let me think for a minute.”
While she thought, I collected the paper clips from everyone and returned them to their box, which I handed to Myrtle. I used to be the group’s treasurer, until I found turning that duty over to Myrtle was the best way to avoid being constantly roped into games.
“Okay, I’ve got it,” Lottie said. “How’s this? A number of years ago, my husband and I took—or, that is, we were supposed to take—a trip to Hawaii. A second honeymoon of sorts. There we were in the LA airport, figuring out which terminal we needed and all that sort of thing. Clare, my husband, well, that’s what I called him. Much better than Clarence, don’t you think? All our friends thought it was hilarious that I called him that.” She gave us a satisfied look. “The point is, he left me sitting at the gate, saying he was going to buy a book to read on the flight. Then he walked off, and that was the last I ever saw of him.”
“You mean he had a heart attack and died?” Myrtle said.
“No, I mean he walked off and never came back.”
“What did you do?” Myrtle said.
“I kept expecting him to return. He’d taken his ticket with him, you see. When they started boarding the flight,” she shrugged, “I got on and went to Hawaii.”
“Without Clarence?” Lill said.
“It was all paid for. Nonrefundable. And I didn’t want to miss out because he had one of his snits and didn’t come back from the bookstore. I just thought he was playing a trick on me. He was a dreadful joker.”
“What kind of tricks did he play?” Myrtle said.
“One time he said he was going out for milk and he didn’t come back for three days. My mother said I should let that be a warning, but I never did understand what she meant. After all, Clare was crazy about me.” She smoothed a hand over her hair and touched the diamond pendant she was wearing.
“Did you report him missing to the police?” Lill said.
“I told everyone Clare fell in love with Hawaii and didn’t want to leave. Come to think of it, that could be true.”
I had the distinct impression Lottie was enjoying herself. Which seemed at odds with the peculiar story she was telling.
“You had children?” Myrtle has five, so this is one of her go-to questions.
“I’m afraid not. Although I did want them. Badly. But Clare thought they would be a bother.”
Myrtle frowned. “But how did you manage?”
“Clare may have walked off, but he didn’t take the money. I was just fine.”
“You had money?” Myrtle’s eyes opened so wide, she resembled a carp.
“Certainly. You see, Clare invented some thingamabob that went into a jet engine. Meant he never had to work again. After he disappeared, I still got the . . . I forget what they called it. Royalty, maybe? Anyway, some kind of payments. It meant I’ve never had any money worries.” She sounded so satisfied, it made me blink.
“And nobody thought it was strange they didn’t see Clarence again?” I said.
“Most of his coworkers couldn’t understand why Clare would want to keep working, given all the money we had. Made perfect sense he’d just up and walk away.”
“Weren’t you curious about what happened to him?” Lill said.
“No, not really.”
Lill looked across at me, giving her head a small shake.
“Well,” I said. “Just look at the time. This has been fascinating, but I’ve an appointment in a few minutes.”
“I was hoping we could adjourn to my place,” Lottie said. “So we can visit some more.”
Lill got to her feet. “Sorry. My daughter’s due for a visit.”
“Nice to meet you, Lottie,” I said, although I wasn’t entirely certain it was. “I hope you enjoy living here.” Then Lill and I made a break for it.
“My goodness. Wasn’t that . . . interesting?” Lill said.
“Rather. Perhaps another story idea for Philippa?” Philippa is a novelist. And I’d really like to know how she avoided being roped into the game today.
“You have to admit, it’s an intriguing premise.” Lill sounded thoughtful. “At least, I suppose it is. But it might be hard to make readers like a character who doesn’t raise holy hell when her husband disappears in an airport.”
“True. Philippa might need to write about the husband.”
“Of course, to do either, she’d need to get to know Lottie,” Lill said. “I’ll bet Myrtle would be happy to organize another game.”
“Don’t you dare suggest it. What I want to know is, what’s with Lottie? She looked like she was ready to be presented at the White House, not play a game of cards with a bunch of senior citizens.”
“Speak for yourself,” Lill said. “I’ll admit to the years, but I’m still young at heart. As for Lottie, all those clothes deserve an occasional outing, don’t you think?”
“I wonder if Myrtle realizes she’s being upstaged.”
“Doubt it. If there’s one thing you can say about our Myrtle, it’s that she’s the star of her world.”
“But if Lottie attracts male attention, that might shake Myrtle up,” I said.
“I for one have no doubt she’ll attract attention,” Lill said. “Besides, it’s clear she wants to. I wonder how many husbands she’s gone through.”
“We could ask her,” I said.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Lill responded.