I sit on the side of my bed and finger the sheets lined with Venetian lace. My daughter bought them for me when she went to Venice with her husband, Tom. Boy, was Elizabeth lucky to have Tom – sweet, that boy. Not like the first one who died from a drug overdose shortly after the divorce. He was the heir to Proctor & Gamble, though. She was stupid not to fight for the money. What girl walks away from billions? There’s plenty of men out there, why not marry a rich one?
Inside my drawer are the letters. Boxes and boxes of letters. From Clyde, my Clyde. I love him so much. They make fun of me for still insisting I be called Mrs. Clyde Hammond. He passed, they say. You’re so strong, they say. You’re your own woman, they say. I’m still his wife, I say.
And then there are those from Dickey Pearl. I blush just saying his name. I can still see him. So handsome in his red Cadillac. And could he dance! God bless his soul, my poor Clyde never could dance. Not even when I tried to teach him. And I won the Atlantic City Jive Competition. Three years in a row.
But that was so long ago.
Today I have a date. My first date in fifty-eight years. Debbie set me up, the nerve. She met him at the hospital when she was getting dialysis. She didn’t mention why he was at the hospital. She only said his wife died two years ago. And he was “nice.”
But what do I want with an old man? I have my boys at the fire station. There’s Ricky and Mario, Darrel and Joe. Do they make me hot! They take my blood pressure and tell me it’s too high. But of course it’s too high, men didn’t have bodies like that in my day. I’m not dead, I can look.
He’s coming in an hour. That gives me time to set my curls. I wonder what kind of car he drives?
At the vanity, I don’t recognize myself. I look at the picture of Clyde and me on our wedding day. It’s taped to the mirror under the picture of Elizabeth and Tom and their two children Sarah and Michael – beautiful children, but trouble those two; not unlike their mother.
I was a goody. What went wrong with Elizabeth? Maybe it was just the time. Hippy Days.
Look at me. Eighteen years old. I’ve never felt a day older than sixteen, even now at seventy-six. Sometimes I put on Chubby Checker and do the Twist in my living room. Look at that thick hair. Where did it go? I put on my lipstick and wish the picture of me and Clyde was in color. What lipstick was I wearing on our wedding day? Must have been red. Or was it pink? No, red. Definitely red. Elizabeth should wear more lipstick. I tell her Tom will leave her if she doesn’t start taking better care of herself. She doesn’t believe me, but I know. Men don’t like their women looking like corpses, for goodness sake.
The buzzer rings. “Hello?” I answer like I don’t know who it is.
“Mrs. Hammond, how you doin’ today?” The voice is muted behind static but I know its Sheila at the guard gate. I give her $20 with a tube of lipstick every Christmas and she tells me about her dates. She can’t choose, Jimmy or Derrick. I give her the same advice my mother gave me, one at every port.
I look at my watch, Clyde’s watch. 6 o’clock. He’s on time.
“Fine, just fine dear,” I say.
“Just like the weather, huh? Have you ever seen such a gorgeous day this side of the Caribbean?” Sheila’s Jamaican. Her deep-set eyes and skin smooth as butter remind me of the cruise Clyde and I took for our 25th anniversary. It was so exotic back then. Debbie was afraid we would be kidnapped.
“Oh Mrs. Hammond, you know I could gab all day. But there’s a visitor for you here,” Sheila says.
“Yes, I am expecting someone.” Had I ever said that before? Sheila always knows my visitors – my son Nicholas and his girlfriend Valerie. Then there’s Debbie. Elizabeth and Tom when they visit from California. Who else? The rest of my friends are dead by now.
I grab my pocketbook and place the essentials inside. Three tubes of lipstick so I’m prepared for any kind of lighting; a small mirror; a compact with light powder (yes, a real lady does indeed powder her nose); mint Tic Tacs, the kind they’ve been selling since 1969 and not those awful fruit flavors the kids buy today; a hair brush and a comb; tissues; and my keys, one for the apartment, one for my cream-colored Lexus. I look at the red cell phone sitting on the kitchen counter and think whether or not I should bring it. Elizabeth bought it for me. She said it was important to have if there was an emergency and that I could use it to call the grandkids. When I gave her the glimmer of joy she was looking for, she suggested I could even learn to use the Internet and e-mail the grandkids. I told her if she lived around the corner like a good daughter, like her brother, the kids could just drop by.
The buzzer rings a second time.
“Hello, Mrs. Hammond. There is a Mr. Alan Frank here to see you.” The voice coming from the machine belongs to Dave. He’s worked at Coral Landing Apartments since before Clyde passed. He’s an older man now. He takes care of me, asks how my grandkids are and makes sure the maids don’t take my jewelry. He reminds me of Mary, my girl who fed my babies and taught me how to iron.
“Oh yes. Thank you, Dave. I will be down in a jiffy.” My mother always taught me to make a man wait for you, let him get excited. But not too much, otherwise he’ll find a blonde quick as moonlight.
“Do you know Schooner’s?” I ask when we’re sitting in his car, still inside the Coral Landings parking lot. “Oh you must know Schooner’s. Let’s go there, I haven’t had their fish sandwich in ages.”
“Okie dokie,” Alan says with a shrug and a smirk. “You tell me how to get there, young lady.”
I can’t believe Debbie actually set me up with this guy. He’s bald. Bald! And his car. It’s a Ford. Oh my god. I might actually have a heart attack. I didn’t think I could shrink anymore, but I’m shrinking, oh boy am I shrinking in this seat.
“It’s in Jupiter. Get on the I-95 and get off at Exit 87.” Jupiter’s far enough from Boca. I hope.
“So, Rose. Rose, Rose,” he says like he’s trying to remember my name. Maybe he has Alzheimer’s. “Golly that’s a pretty name. I used to know a Rose in South Carolina. Sweet as my momma’s tea.”
Oh no. I thought that was a Southern accent.
“Did you? Mine’s Rosalie. Like the musical with the songs by Cole Porter.”
“We’re all alone, no chaperone. Can get our number. The world’s in a slumber. Let’s misbehave!” He’s singing. It’s not terribly unpleasant but I’m still embarrassed.
“Come on Rose! There’s something wild about you child. That’s so contagious. Let’s be outrageous!” He takes his hand off the wheel and puts his fist up to my mouth like it’s a microphone, “Let’s misbehaaaaaave!”
I keep a stern face and don’t dare part my lips, even if I am singing along in my head.
“It’s the next exit.”
Inside Schooner’s I ask for a corner booth. At the far end of the restaurant. He mistakes my insistence for an initiation toward something quite unlady-like and gives me a wink and a nudge with his elbow. I pull away quickly and follow the blonde waitress with a much-too-short skirt to our table.
When did the young girls start looking like working girls? At least they don’t wear baggy pants anymore or cut their hair short. Women should be women and they should look like women.
I glimpse her nametag and read: Peony. Sounds like a whore.
“Sooo, my lady.”
Maybe I can fake a heart attack. Is it the right or the left arm that’s supposed to hurt?
“What’s good here?”
“The fish sandwich. The fish sandwich is great. Just like on the boardwalk.”
“The boardwalk, huh? And which boardwalk might that be? Not the one in Hollywood Beach? I bet you were a Key West kinda-gal in your day.”
In my day?
“And just what is a Key West kinda-gal?”
He takes a napkin from the small wicker basket at the center of the red-and-white checkered table and wipes the sweat from the top of his shining baldhead. I notice his hue is slightly yellow, and I start to imagine his head as a giant lemon I could stab a fork into and use to clean my toilet bowl.
Before Alan can answer, Peony comes back. She has a wide gap in-between her front teeth and slightly slanted eyes. I feel bad for thinking of her as a whore. With a face like that, lipstick isn’t the only thing she needs. Hopefully she’ll find a nice man. Probably no doctor or lawyer, though.
“I’ll have the fish sandwich. With fries, please.”
“And for you, sir?”
“Hmmm,” he holds the menu close to his face and drags the index finger of his right hand underneath the words. I start to wonder if he can read.
“Oh and Miss,” I add, “I’d like a glass of white wine. A big glass.”
I stopped drinking a few years ago, though I was never a big drinker. Back in Atlantic City, I would puff on, but never inhale, a cigarette and sip Schnapps while playing cards with the girls. But that was so long ago, and even then I never understood those women who kicked their heels up and got drunk on Martinis. But things were different when Clyde passed. I drank Vodka. I thought it would numb the fact of his absence, but it didn’t help. I still cried and in the end it made my blood sugar too high. If I’m lucky today though, a drink-induced diabetic episode could get me out of this dinner.
“I’ll have a BLT,” Alan peers intently at the young girl’s breast and says, “Peony. Now isn’t that a swell name. Yes, Miss Peony, I will have a BLT. That’s a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich.”
“Man oh man, what are they naming kids these days?” Alan says as the young girl walks away.
He sighs and continues, “I know you said to get the fish sandwich, but I really don’t eat fish.”
“You don’t eat fish? What are you doing in Florida?”
Alan looks out across the restaurant as if he were watching a picture only he could see. He takes a deep breath and places his hands flat on the table before leaning toward me and speaking again.
“Rose, can you dance?”
“Can I dance?! You’re looking at the three-time winner of the Atlantic City Jive Competition.”
Alan winks and leaves the table. Just as he approaches again, I hear the jumpy keys of a piano, transporting me back to a time when I wore full skirts that hit just above the knee and swirled like the tops of cupcakes when Dickey Pearl swung me around and around.
Alan stands over me, his left eyebrow raised, right hand outstretched inviting me to dance. I haven’t felt a rush of butterflies like this since I danced on the TV show Summertime on the Pier in 1962. It was one year after my oldest was born, and a TV man spotted me in the Marine Ballroom. He asked if I would come back to Steel Pier tomorrow and promised to make me a star just like Geraldine Page. Well, I became no movie star but all my friends and family did gather around Debbie’s television – she was the only one in the neighborhood with a color set – to watch Ed Hurst introduce “Mrs. Rose Hammond, Atlantic City dance extraordinaire!”
I took Alan’s hand and before I knew it, we were stomping and twisting just like it was 1962 and for the first time since Clyde’s death I felt I could be “Rose,” just “Rose.”