Card Trick

            The day is as big as she ever remembers one being. But it starts the same way all the others do, with him.

            “Mer-wee!” It’s only a slight slur today. That’s good. On others his speech comes out in thick moans that crawl across the smoke-filled air onto bare walls, once bright white but now stained yellow, and up her spine. Those moans steal her love for him and leave her with something else.

            “Mer-wee!” She gets his water.

            “Mer-wee!” She gives him his pills, about a half-a-dozen to start the day. “Mer-wee!” More water.

            “Mer-wee!” Finally, she lights him a cigarette. Stroke after stroke, three in one day once, and he still won’t quit. His left arm is nothing more than an accessory, and he’ll never quit.

            She watches him jerk and teeter against the weight of his decay before safely reclining on the sofa. Satisfied, he puffs away. Mary smiles at this, a glimpse of the man he used to be. He took care of everything for her. They met in a hospital. His body began failing early, but she fell for him anyways. She wasn’t a nurse or anything. Their romance began with her emptying his bedpan. He got better and unapologetically chivalrous. A random remark she made about pumpkin spice lattes had him bringing one to her everyday. That was how it was. He took care of her.

            For breakfast, she makes toast, lots of butter for him. Coffee, lots of sugar for her. Old TV Westerns like The Rifleman and Bonanza play in an endless loop. The hero saving the day has lost its suspense, but she watches anyways. The doctors tried physical therapy. One minute on the treadmill left him panting and whining. His speech is good enough for conversation. Slurring her name is more convenient. Mary tried anger and tough love and compassion and tears. Nothing worked. The Rifleman scruffs a little boy’s hair after he uses a slingshot to fight off a rabid raccoon. Her husband giggles.

            “I’m going out for some things,” she says. Some things. It isn’t a lie. They need bread and bologna and cigarettes, of course. But the main thing is something else entirely. She’s found a way to stay sane, a way to escape. She gives him a kiss on the cheek. A new outlaw comes to town to kill the Rifleman. She locks the door behind her. He’ll be okay.

            Their apartment building sits a block west of the North Tyler Parkway, a series of chain restaurants and shopping centers. Even though none of the centers are very old, nothing replaces them when a business goes under. Fields of cracked concrete dot most of the parkway. Mary begins walking along one of those fields, keeping herself a safe distance from the cars whizzing by.

            She drove once. Year after year, he talked some shady dealer into giving them credit on a dumpy old heap, which broke down, and he had to do it again. Each time the car got worse and so did the loan. It almost became begging. Even now, they wouldn’t be above that, but she enjoys walking. These excursions give her a chance to clear her head or sometimes, to dream. She ran in a few 5Ks back during the good times. It was silly, watching him chain-smoking among all the runners as he cheered her on. Those were adventurous days. On Saturdays, he sold painkillers to semi-pro wrestlers. On Sunday, she sang hymns in church. Monday through Friday was spent scrambling to find odd jobs painting houses or clearing flowerbeds only to come home and make meals too big to finish. He was content to work all day if he could end it with a stuffed belly. He was a hard worker, but never good with money. Still, it was enough until the stroke. She passes Kooper’s Grocery. Of all the places for her world to change, she thinks. That afternoon like any other. He ran inside dirty and sweaty. She waited in the car.

            “Burgers sound alright?” he had asked. She nodded and waited long enough for her imagination to get the best of her before the ambulance came.

            The parkway bustles. Cars honking for space and crotch rockets drowning out all thought push her. So she goes. She pulls a business card from her pocket:

J.J. Whitaker Investments

“Secure prosperity and peace o’ mind.”

The Plaza Building

3774 N. Tyler Pky Suite 1501

 

            “The lord called upon me to do this,” he had said. The church sends a van to pick up shut-ins, and that is enough. Mary never expected more. He came up to her. Yes, that’s how it happened. They had never spoken before. She had seen him though. The First Southern Baptist Church was full of money, old and new. They all sat in a section towards the front. Mary knew part of their being there was expected. Faith is a pillar and anyone who lacks it isn’t to be trusted, especially not the wealthy. But she did not judge them for it. That was not her place. If anything, she admired them. Mr. Whitaker, in particular. She liked watching him enter the sanctuary with his wife, a woman who wore a modest ruby necklace and a fur scarf. She had tangible grace. Mary often grasped for it as her husband opened the passenger’s side of their Cadillac and offered his hand. The poor can never escape the selfishness of going to worship the lord. They can never be more than beggars after a blessing. But the rich only seek humility.

            Both seemed possible when Mr. Whitaker grabbed her arm that morning.

            “Excuse me?” she asked.

            “The lord has called upon me to help you.”

            “I’m sorry. I need to get back to my husband.”

            “Yes, that’s what this is about. I’m James. James Whitaker, miss?”

            “Mary, Mr. Whitaker.

            “James, please.”

            “I must get back soon.”

            “I know. You carry a burden, Mary.”

            At this she turned away. The truth of it did not make it right to say.

            “I don’t mean to—” he pressed. “I’ve watched the way you care for him. A good and faithful wife.”

            Mary nodded.

            “But the lord has plans for you. You’re still young. Wouldn’t you like to find out what God has in store for you?”

            “He’s my husband. I’m the only one who takes care of him.”

            Mr. Whitaker reached inside of his suit jacket and pulled out a thin silver box. He pressed a tiny switch on the side to open it and handed her his card.

            “God called upon me in prayer to ease that burden,” he said. “I have a stake in an assisted living center—”

            “I couldn’t just—”

            “No, no. Of course not. This isn’t some home. It’s top notch. The best service and care. You could visit whenever you like.”

            “Then we couldn’t afford it.”

            “Please understand. I’ve been commissioned to do this. This is the good lord at work.”

            “Mer-wee!” By then, he had seen her talking and his slur showed impatience.

            “I have to go.”

            “Of course. Come to the office. This week. Pray on it. Then come by my office.”

            The Plaza Building stands in the distance, glass a dozen stories tall. Coming closer, she prays until her will becomes God’s. They both want for a few years to be hers and hers alone.

            Every day she looks for signs. Every day she finds more. The six lanes across the parkway are clear. Mary sees a clear shot to the Plaza without going all the way to the crosswalk. She takes off. Behind her sits the grocery. Where the world changed. Where she told him she was going. Where she supposes she’ll need a loaf of bread, a package of baloney, and his smokes. It will all be there on the way back because it’s all always there. For now, the Tyler Parkway parts and she runs.

            In the far right lane on the opposite side, closest to the Plaza Building, a white Prius zooms closer. Cars speeding down the parkway recklessly is the norm and Mary pulls back.  The rest of the parkway is still empty.  She can wait for one car to pass. But the Prius slows down, too. Inside, a young man, no more than twenty, motions with his hand for her to go. Not in a hurried gesture, but with a grin. Everyone in the car is about the same age as the driver including the girl in the passenger seat wearing sunglasses and a black tank top. She smiles, too, and later Mary thinks, She knew; they all did. Mary gives an appreciative wave and continues on. The driver in the Prius hits the gas and nearly hits her before braking. The whole carload erupts in laughter. Mary freezes. Her eyes stay locked on the fraction of distance between her and the Prius.

            “Well, go on then, you stupid bitch,” the driver says. And Mary does. The Old Testament tells her God’s good work comes not without tests. Her path to the Plaza Building could not be completely clear. She knows that.

            Inside, an instrumental version of Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl” plays. Mary hums along. The lobby is cold and neat. Its fountain is made of silver. She finds Mr. Whitaker’s name on the directory. He’s near the top. The elevator faces the parkway and is entirely glass on that side. She watches as the freeway and the grocery and even her apartment shrink away.

            Ding!

            The grin on her face is almost obscene now, and she’s quick to hide it. Even Mr. J.J. Whitaker whom the lord spoke to would find it appalling if she’s giddy about this. She pauses, tucking any loose strands of hair behind her ears.

            “May I help you?” asks a man in a suit from behind the front desk. He isn’t much older than the Prius crew. He could even be Sunglasses’ brother.

            “Oh, yes. I’m here to see Mr. Whitaker.” The music from the lobby is gone and it is noticeably silent.

            “Um, do you have an appointment with an advisor or—”

            Mary laughs, “No, no. He just said to come by. Sort of a personal matter.”

            “I see. It’s just that J.J. Whitaker is the name of the firm. It’s not a real person.”

            “He told me to come by. This week.”

            “Let me see if one of our advisors can—”

            “Those kids put you up to this,” Mary snarls.

            “What?”

            “Another laugh at the pathetic old woman, right? Well, I don’t care. Mr. Whitaker came to me and told me to come by.”

            “There is no Mr. Whitaker. It’s just a name. Like a mascot.”

            “I want to see Mr. Whitaker! I want to see Mr. Whitaker! I want to see Mr. Whitaker!”

            “I think you should go,” he replies as he reaches for the phone. Mary backs away. Out of the office, past the elevator, down the hall. If crossing the street is treacherous, she can’t remember.

            “Hard cheese,” she says to no one in particular inside Kooper’s. It isn’t in the budget, but the baloney sandwiches will be that much better. Not slices. A block of sharp cheddar. His favorite. She checks out and makes her way back home. An empty pack of cigarettes among the cracked pavement stops her. He will moan if she’s late. That’s unavoidable. He’ll never stop moaning without his smokes.

            Turning around makes her dizzy. The sack of groceries isn’t heavy, but it’s extra weight. The pavement reminds her of a desert. The further she walks, the less it seems like she’s moved at all, and she knows she’ll walk the parkway forever. Then the Prius appears on the other side of the parking lot. Mary squints. Her eyesight is deteriorating as quickly as the rest of her, yet she sees it. Sunglasses smiling. And she knows. They mean to mow her down.

            The tiny white car speeds towards her like a stallion and her body collapses to the pavement. Opening her eyes, the right side of her face burns until she pulls a sliver of broken bottle from her cheek.

            “Easy miss!” a voice calls drowning out the sound of laughter piercing her ears.

            She sees a man running towards her from a grey extended cab pick-up.

            “Dumb teenager stuff, I guess,” she says picking herself up. She turns her shoulder in wiping her cheek on her sleeve.

            “What?”

            “Forget it.”

            “I think we oughta get you somewhere. Make sure you’re okay.”

            Mary puts out her hands, “Thank you. I’m okay. Just forgot something.” She picks up her bag and continues on.

            “Reds, please,” she tells the cashier at customer service. Her fingers pull a bit of scab from her cheek, partly dry and mostly wet.

            “Hey, Mary. I tried to catch you before you got out of here,” the cashier says waving the pack in her hand. “How is he?”

            “Oh, good, good. Getting better. God willing.” Mary looks over at a corkboard on the wall where people post their business cards. One looks promising and she slips it in her pocket.

            “You know you’re the only one who ever takes those things. Find anything good?”

            “Wha—? Oh, it’s just for scraps of paper. Notes and stuff.”

            “Keep your head up, sweetie. Jesus is watching above.”

            “Yes. He is. Thank you.”

            At home, she finds a lumpy mass tipped over on the couch.  He has given up on trying to pull himself up, but a puddle of fresh drool lets her know he’s still breathing.

            “Mer-wee!” he cries and she fights to pull the dead weight. “Mer-wee!”

            “I know. I’m sorry,” she explains.

            “Mer-wee…” he sobs.

            “I know,” she repeats. She cradles him in her arms swaying back and forth until his moaning stops. She says, “Wait” and runs over to the grocery bag to pull out the block of cheese like it’s Christmas morning. He calms down.

            Two baloney sandwiches later, she lights his cigarette.

            “Mer-wee!” Gunsmoke is on, but the volume is too low. She adjusts it and turns towards the kitchen. Feeling something buried in her pocket, she pulls out a card:

New Tomorrows!

Pam Swanson

Life Coach

8709 N. Tyler Parkway

            “Yes, Ms. Swanson from the choir,” she whispers tucking the precious card back into her pocket. Tomorrow is a big day. As big as she can ever remember one being.