Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Myra Bocca by James Mulhern

Gabe and Molly, new to Wilton Manors in Florida, meet the characterful  proprietor of a New Age book store; by James Mulhern.

Just before the Shoppes of Wilton Manors, where Espresso Boys was located, Gabe and I passed a New Age bookstore called Sacred Ashes. We paused and looked in the window at a display of crystals and gemstones, silver and pewter jewelry, chalices, glass skulls, and crystal balls.

"Let's go in. Maybe they'll have some books on grieving," Gabe said. My aunt had just passed away. A male couple holding hands smiled at us as they passed. The warm breeze of the Florida evening felt good.

"I'm not grieving. I didn't like her much," I said quietly.

"Yes you are." He took my hand and pushed open the door. Enya was playing softly and there was an overpowering smell of sage. A woman wearing a bright pink muumuu embroidered with a design of blue, white, and orange tulips that rose from the hem like a garden, waved to us from the register at the back of the store. "Come in. Come in. It's so good to get a little business."

We passed a case with a wide variety of incense sticks (I assumed this is why the store was called Sacred Ashes), books, tarot cards, essential oils, prayer flags, greeting cards, postcards, photo frames, and several other new-agey items. The woman came out from behind her counter as we reached her. "I'm Myra. Myra Bocca." She had a large toothy smile, and her eyes - golden brown behind blue cat-eye glasses that were popular in the 50s and 60s - reminded me a bit of my Nonna's.

"I'm Gabe, and this is Molly."

She looked us over. "You're not a couple of course. He's too handsome to be straight." She waited for my response.

"I'm not a lesbian, if that's what you're thinking."

"Ya never know. A lot of lipstick lesbians in this town." She pointed to the center of her forehead. "I'm a bit psychic. Both of you could be, too, if you rub this area right here." She put her hand against my forehead. "Feel the energy, Molly?"

"No."

"Well, I'm activating your forehead chakra. It's the main switch for the universal force, the awakened spirit, the center of higher consciousness."

I burst out laughing. "I don't believe any of that."

Myra frowned. "You will, dear, you will."

"Hey, are you from Massachusetts?" Gabe asked.

"Yes I am," she said. "See, Molly. Gabe's psychic. She gestured to all the items that surrounded us. "Already, the universal force is doing its thing."

"Not really," Gabe said. He lowered his head and smirked. "It was the way that you pronounced 'dear' that clued me in. You dropped the 'r.'"

"He's a smart one," she said, puckering her lips and raising her eyebrows, as she looked at me. She stared for a moment at my face. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Why do you say that?"

Gabe put his arm around my waist.

"No one fools Myra. Something is bothering you. Did someone die recently?"

"Lots of people experience death. That's not psychic," I said. Then to Gabe: "Let's go get that latte and dessert."

"You're avoiding the question."

"I don't really think it's any of your business, Myrtle."

"It's Myra... Okay, okay. I can tell you are upset. I just sense things is all." She moved behind the counter and began opening a box. "New inventory."

"Molly didn't mean to be rude," Gabe said. "She's just a private person."

I glared at him. "I can speak for myself, Gabe." He cocked his head back slightly.

"I thought there was a death." She crumpled up the torn brown paper from the package and tossed it in a wastebasket behind her, then lifted up the box. "Perfect timing," she said, repositioning her glasses and reading the box. "You know what this is?" Her voice was solemn as she looked into our faces.

"Apache Tear Tumblestones," I said. "Am I psychic, too?"

Myra laughed, glancing at Gabe and placing the box on the glass counter. "Oh, she's a tough one." Then she smiled at me. "I like you. You're headstrong and stubborn."

"And you're Italian," I said.

She turned around and saw that I was reading a sign that read, "The trouble with eating Italian Food is three days later, you're hungry again." Both Gabe and Myra laughed.

She nodded at the sign, then said, "Yes, Molly. I'm Italian just like you. I knew the minute you walked into this store. I said to myself, 'Now there's a strikingly beautiful Italian woman.' And I also said to myself, 'She doesn't look like she's married.'" She stared at me. "Why aren't you married?"

"Because I don't want to be," I said. "Men are a pain in the ass. Sorry, Gabe. And again, it's none of your business, Myrtle."

"Hey, I agree." He shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms upward.

"It's Myra. I have a feeling you're saying the wrong name on purpose. But that's okay. I've gotten under your skin. I tend to do that with a lot of people." She bent forward, placing her elbows on the counter, resting her head in her hands. "So speaking of food, why don't the three of us go to dinner sometime? My treat. You're obviously new to Wilton Manors. I'm a wealth of knowledge about the area and Florida itself. Everybody knows me. Just ask around. I could tell you stories. Whadaya say?" She smiled.

"Sure. Why not?" Gabe answered.

"And you, Molly? There's a nice old lady inside this muumuu... What do you think by the way?" She lifted her elbows off the counter and twirled around. "I usually wear clothing that hugs my figure, but this thing is so comfortable." As she finished her whirl, she knocked the box towards me. I caught it.

"Oh, sorry about that. Good catch. Whew! I'm all out of breath. I gotta start working out. The problem is I'm too damn lazy and I like to eat." She slapped her backside and turned around. Looking over her shoulders she said, "Just look at the size of this toosh. There's a lot to grab onto, but in this town I'm outa luck."

"I'm sure there are a few straight men in Wilton Manors," I said.

"Yeah, a couple. I did have a fling with the Greek guy that owns the coffee shop you're going to. Espresso Boys, right? And I'm not gonna pretend that was my psychic ability. All the gay guys like that place. He's a nice guy, the owner I mean. Alexander Michaelis. Also from Massachusetts by the way. We used to get along. Had a little falling out. But that's a story for another night." She opened the box of Apache Tear stones and pulled one out.

"This is for you, Molly."

"I don't need it."

"It's good for healing grief. Please take it."

I did.

"Made out of a type of black obsidian rock," she said. "Also good for grounding and protection. And keep it in your pocket near your genital chakra. Does wonders for your vagina, enhancing sexual energy."

"I think my vagina is in pretty good shape," I said, smiling. "But I'll use it for maintenance." I put the stone in my pocket.

"Of course it is. Not all saggy and dry like mine. Wait til your pubic hair turns gray. Depressing as hell." She grimaced, patting her pubic area unconsciously.

Gabe and Myra exchanged phone numbers before we left. Myra walked us to the door and gave us both a hug. "Welcome to Florida. Enjoy your evening."

After we passed her shop, Gabe said, "She's a character. I like her."

"I find her a bit intrusive. And you know how I feel about this higher power shit. The New Age Movement is just watered-down religion. I get pissed that people like Myra take advantage of the tragedies and insecurities of others."

"But maybe there are powers and mysteries to this universe beyond our ability to understand? I know we've had this discussion before." He smiled at me.

I laughed. "Yes, yes we have. And you're still trying to make a believer out of me."

We walked further down Wilton Drive. The street was bustling with gay men. An older man in a red Miata blared Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." Every once in a while I spotted women, mostly lesbians. Palm trees along the street moved in the wind. I was living in a heterosexual wasteland. I ruminated about the strangeness of the experience with Myra, the coincidences: she reminded me a bit of Nonna - the color of her eyes and her dramatic flair, but not her overall look, and I suspected not as intelligent. Nonna was also more beautiful. Myra had a receding chin and a wrinkled prune face. The coincidences - that she was part Italian and from Massachusetts, her statement about the recent death, and her opening a box of stones for grieving - were a bit weird. What were the chances of her opening a box of "grieving" stones at that moment? Maybe the black stones had nothing to do with grieving and she was making it all up, just a good reader of people, a con. In her business, you had to be.

Espresso Boys was busy. The slogan on the door read, "Where the coffee and men are robust." Several men, varying in age from twenty to fifty something, sprawled on the comfortable black leather sofa, loveseat, and chairs. When Gabe and I entered, most looked at us. Gabe, of course, garnered the most attention. His good looks were nice "eye candy," so I was told by his friend Walt. "He gets attention wherever he goes," Walt told me once. "Go for it, I tell him. Enjoy the deliciousness of sex."

A Harry Potter movie played on the four television screens. Most of the men looked bored, barely talking to one another, instead texting on their cell phones or chatting on a "dating" app called "ManDate." Occasionally, they flipped through gay rags called Buzz and 411, mesmerized by the glossy ads of sexy men selling anything from plumbing services to legal work. There were even ads for doctors. Gabe once showed me an ad with a bare-chested hunky doctor wearing a stethoscope.

As we walked to the back counter to order our drinks, men continued to admire Gabe's beauty from the tables along the sidewall. I got passing glances, but women, I soon learned, were sometimes met with hostility in establishments that catered to gay men. Some of the men were kind, and a lot would comment on my good looks, makeup, and hair. If you were a pretty woman, you got attention, especially if you were an accessory to a gorgeous man like Gabe. The term that I sometimes heard mumbled in reference to me was "fag hag," which irked me.

A handsome older man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair asked how he could help us. I looked at the desserts in the display case, none of which seemed too appealing.

"I'll have a large latte and one of those brownies." I pointed.

"And I'll have a cappuccino," Gabe said.

"No dessert?" the man said.

"No, I have to watch my waist." Gabe patted his perfect abdomen. I rolled my eyes.

"These young guys are crazy," the man said to me. "When I grew up, men didn't care about looking so good. The gay guys are just as vain as the women." He laughed.

I deduced that this was Mr. Michaelis, the gentleman Myra told us about.

"Well I'm a woman, and I don't worry about my looks." I smiled at him. "It's boring."

"That's cause you're lucky. You got those Mediterranean genes like me. What are you, Italian? Jewish?"

"Italian."

"Ahh. The Italian women are some of the most stunning." He laughed, making our drinks and talking over his shoulder. The latte machine whirred as he foamed the milk. "But Greek women aren't so bad either."

"You're Greek."

"How'd you guess?"

"I'm psychic."

He laughed. "Yeah, like that one up the street. The owner of Sacred Ashes."

"We just came from there."

He put our drinks on the counter, then placed my brownie on a small white plate with tongs. "Ahh. Myra. Don't trust a word she says." He had a tired dark complexion with deep wrinkles around his penetrating eyes, which were brown and thickly lashed. The sclera that surrounded his irises was very white, accentuating his perfectly capped teeth. He was handsome, even with sagging jowls, and I could see why Myra found him attractive.

"I hope you like the brownie. Not homemade, but I buy from good bakers." He handed me the plate. Gabe grabbed our drinks.

"Why shouldn't we trust her?" I said, before following Gabe to a table at the back.

"She's a lying greedy bitch. She'd sell her sister if she could."

"Does her sister live here?"

"Catherine lives up in Massachusetts. That's where Myra and I are from. The sister hates Myra. They haven't talked in years." He looked at the blond guy in line behind me. "Can I help you?" The guy started to answer, but Mr. Michaelis cut him off, calling to me as I walked away, "Enjoy your brownie. Stop by again if you want to get the dirt on her." He checked out my ass.

When I got to the table, Gabe said, "I think he likes you. Dirty old man."

"He's not that old. Late fifties." I looked back at him. He was busy making another drink. "And good-looking in a Robert DeNiro type of way."

"I thought you were finished with men?" Gabe broke off a piece of my brownie.

I sat up straight, brushed my fingers through my hair, and said. "It's always good to be open to change." A man with nice biceps at the next table smiled at me. By the front door, an intoxicated man entered, clutching the arm of his friend, who rolled his eyes and frowned.

"I won't argue with that." Gabe's eyes moved to the television screen on the opposite wall where Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets played. The character Ron was saying, "Do you think it's true? Do you think there really is a Chamber of Secrets?" to Hermione and Harry. While I watched the scene unfold, I thought how life was one great chamber of secrets and wondered how any of us could ever begin to know what was true.



I set the table and lit some candles. What I enjoyed most about living with Gabe was dinnertime and afterwards when we would sit together in the media area of the living room to enjoy news or a movie on the large-screen television.

"This is delicious," I said after my first spoonful of his risotto, a delicious blend of rice, asparagus, spices, and a creamy sauce.

"Here. Have some bread," he said, his mouth full, passing over the wooden server on which he had sliced a French baguette. I buttered a piece.

"Remember, my mother and her friend Evy are visiting this weekend. They arrive Saturday morning and leave on Monday, Columbus Day."

"Yes, I remember. I love your mother. She's so warm and funny. She doesn't even realize how hilarious she is. What's Evy like?"

"She's a great friend to my mother. A lady from Scotland with the best expressions. You'll love them. Kind, absolutely lovely. She's helped my mother a great deal over the years. When my mother was recovering from all those surgeries for her leg and back, Evy was a godsend. Of course, my sisters helped out, but they had to work. Evy was always there to assist."

He motioned for my wine glass and poured some more Chardonnay. "Oh, and we're going to dinner with Myra on Thursday evening. Is that okay?"

"Yes, I told you I want to be more social."

"She really likes us." Gabe scratched his chin and sipped some wine. "I can't figure it out."

I was silent.

"What are you thinking?" He smiled. "I know when you are holding back."

"Gabe, I don't want to say, because you'll think I'm being a misanthrope once again, not giving people a chance."

"Oh, come on." He moved the fingers of his hand in the air towards himself. "Bring it on. What's your criticism?"

"She makes me uncomfortable. You know I can be guarded. I just find it funny that she has taken such a liking to us so soon. She doesn't even know us."

He laughed. "Maybe she truly is a psychic and knows that we will be great friends."

"I doubt it."

He paused the spoonful of food he was about to eat and stared at me.

"Gabe, I told you, I'm going. I gave you my word."

"It'll be fun. Even if she turns out to be a nut and your suspicions are true. Consider it an adventure, as my mother would say."

"I will. Here's to adventures." I raised my wine glass. He did as well. "A toast to a future filled with good times and friends."



On any given weeknight at the Backyard Café, three waiters and a busboy moved quickly to serve a crowd made up of pairs or groups of older gay men, some whose bleary red-rimmed eyes divulge an afternoon, or even a week, of drinking and partying (doing drugs). The diner, which opened as a Greek restaurant in the 1980s, had changed hands a few times through the years. At one point it was a Hungarian restaurant; the most recent incarnation occurred when the owner of Charlie's, the dinner club next door, purchased it. Since then the clientele had been mostly gay.

There were about sixteen brown formica tables with aqua-green padded chairs. The walls of the place were painted gray-and-white faux marble on top, and fire-engine red on bottom. Black wainscoting above an eight-inch wallpaper design of dancing Coca Cola bottles and caps ran the perimeter of the oddly-shaped octagonal room. A counter above a base wall of shiny aluminum sheet metal seated about ten people along the north side of the restaurant. On the walls were black-and-white photographic prints of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and Fred Astaire. Behind the cash register was a large closeup of Liza Minelli's face. The shabby drop-ceiling squares were painted steel gray to hide water stains, grease, and grime.

I took in all of this after Sal, a balding forty-something bear-type with round brown eyes, rubbed Gabe's shoulders and took our drink orders. Myra was supposed to meet us here at 6:30. It was now 6:45.

"Do you think she forgot?" I asked.

"No. She'll be here." Gabe was reading the menu. "Have you decided what you're gong to order?" He pulled his menu back and looked at me.

"I'm going to have the Greek salad."

Sal brought our wine. "Who you waiting for?"

"Myra Bocca, the lady who runs the New Age shop across the street."

Sal rolled his eyes. "She's always late. Cheap as shit, too. Leaves 10 percent if I'm lucky. She can be entertaining though. Lots of the guys in town love her. They think she's fabulous." He laughed.

The door opened and in she walked. She was wearing tight jeans, a black v-neck t-shirt that showed off her cleavage, and what I call come-fuck-me pumps. I thought she looked ridiculous for her age. Her makeup was overdone, especially the bright orangey-red lipstick and oversprayed hair that topped her head like a cresting wave. I imagined a mini surfer riding her crown.

Gabe stood up. "Hi Myra. We're over here."

Sal retreated to the kitchen.

"Hey, aren't you gonna ask me what I want to drink?" Myra called after him.

"I'll be with you in a moment."

She sat down. An overpowering sickly sweet floral perfume surrounded us. I coughed.

"You getting sick, honey?" She put her hand on mine. I noticed a gaudy most-likely fake ruby ring and several age spots.

"No. Actually, it's your perfume. I think you put too much on."

Gabe smiled and pretended to read the menu.

"You want me to wash some off? I was so excited to meet you, I think I got carried away."

"Yes, I would appreciate your washing some off. Otherwise, I'll be coughing throughout the dinner. I have asthma."

"Sure. Sure. I'll be right back."

We both watched her waddle towards the rear of the restaurant. She tapped Sal on the shoulder and ordered her drink. He looked irritated.

"I didn't know you had asthma, Molly."

"I don't, but did you smell that shit? Makes me nauseous. It's like she's laid out and surrounded by flowers at a funeral home."

Gabe laughed. "What an image."

"Don't you think she's dressed a bit inappropriately for her age? Who wants to look at those sagging wrinkled breasts?"

"Trust me," he said. "No one in here is paying attention to her breasts."

"Is that better?" she asked when she returned.

"Much. Thank you, Myra." I handed her my menu. She looked around for Sal. "Where is that guy? He gives me the worst service. And I'm always so nice to him. Leave him the biggest tips."

Gabe and I looked at each other.

"Why don't you decide what you want to eat? I'll get his attention." Gabe signaled him.

Sal came to the table with a whiskey on the rocks. "Thank you, sweetie," she said, without looking up from the menu.

"Have you all decided what you want?" Sal said.

"I'm still making up my mind." She waved for him to go away and said, "Come back in a few minutes."

Eventually we ordered and the food was brought - my Greek salad, Gabe's turkey club, and Myra's meatloaf with extra gravy. Myra dominated the conversation. She wanted to tell us all about her life.

"I don't want you to get a wrong idea of me from all the stories you hear. A lot of liars and jealous types down here. Like Alexander."

"Who's Alexander?" Gabe said.

Myra wiped some gravy that had spilled in her cleavage. "Mr. Michaelis, you know, the one who owns the coffee shop."

"He's handsome," I said. "Seems very nice."

"He can be charming. But don't let those good looks beguile you. He likes to tell stories." Her eyes teared up.

"What's wrong?" Gabe said.

"It's just that I went through quite an ordeal before I moved here."

"What happened?" I wasn't buying it. She was a terrible actress.

"I'll tell you the God's truth." She held up her hand like a boyscout. "I was the wife of a very wealthy man. Lazzarus Bocca. Have either of you ever heard of Bocca hats?"

I shook my head. Gabe said, "Yes. You mean those fedora hats that stars like Humphrey Bogart wore in Casablanca?"

"Exactly." She smiled at Gabe. Then she looked at me. "You know what he's talking about, Molly?"

"Well I know what a fedora is, but I've never been one for fashion. And I never watched Casablanca. I don't like that genre of film."

Myra opened her mouth and raised her eyebrows. I saw bits of meatloaf on her tongue. "My God. Casablanca's a classic. What's the matter with you?"

I laughed. "I don't care if it's a classic. If I don't like something, I don't pursue it."

"Hmm. This one is quite opinionated." she said to Gabe. "I bet she can be a real bitch." She laughed.

"I bet you can be a bitch, too." I smiled at her.

She paused and looked at my hair. "You should consider a dye job. You're getting a few gray strands by your temples." She picked a bit of meatloaf off her lap and threw it on the floor. "I know a good hairdresser if you need a recommendation."

"I like my gray hair." I looked at her head. "Cheap dye jobs look awful."

Gabe eyed me. "Back to your story, Myra. I want to hear."

"Well, when Lazzy died."

"Lassie?" I said.

"Lazarus. My husband."

I laughed. "Sorry. I thought you said Lassie, but I guess you wouldn't have married a dog." I had finished a second glass of wine and could feel myself getting silly.

"My Lazzy was a beautiful man. Very handsome."

I burst out laughing, spitting some wine. "I'm sorry. That just sounded funny to me. I keep picturing that beautiful collie from the series. Now that was a classic."

Myra ignored me. "After Lazarus died." She looked at me. "My stepchildren - you see he was my third husband - they wanted to take the entire inheritance. We had set up a trust, Lazarus and I." Once more she looked at me. I pursed my lips so I wouldn't laugh, and I feigned interest. "And the deal with the trust was that everything would be dispersed evenly among his kids and mine from a previous marriage. His kids took me to court and I lost everything."

"How is that possible?" Gabe said.

She picked up a napkin and wiped her jeans. While looking down she said, "Well he had three children. Two girls and a boy. The boy was one of those vindictive fag types. Jimmy was... is his name. God, I wish he were dead."

Gabe's eyebrows lifted and his eyes widened.

"Oh, I got nothin' against gays, Gabe. I wouldn't be living here if I did." She laughed. "It's just that he was a big pain in the ass. Told me I was full of shit when I tried to explain my side of the story. All I ever wanted was for the trust to be settled fair and square. He was the ring leader in taking me to court." She paused. "And you know what the bitchy queen did to me?"

I took a sip of my third glass of wine. "I have no idea. Please tell me."

Gabe warned me with his eyes.

She moved close and placed a hand on each of our forearms. "He reported me to the IRS for tax evasion and fraud. I lost all control of the trust. Now I'm broke."

"I'm confused?" Gabe said. "Tax evasion for what?"

"I owned a little restaurant. Nothing fancy. Called the Sunnyside Café. My poor son. Worked so hard in construction, then he hurt his back and had to go out on disability. Well, I did what any loving mother would do. I let him work under the table at the Sunnyside. Those disability checks weren't nothing to live on."

"So you committed a felony," I said.

"Don't get attitudey with me, Molly. I'm opening my heart to you."

"Tell me how your son, who was collecting disability for a supposed back injury was healthy enough to work in a restaurant. Restaurant work is tough. Just look at how these waiters are running around." I motioned to Sal and the others.

"You would have done it, too, if you ever had a kid. Which I doubt you ever will if you keep spending all your time with gay men. But no matter." She looked at Gabe. "She's past her prime anyway. Few men will want her now, especially in this town." She laughed. "Just look around." She turned and looked at the crowd of men behind her.

"How the fuck do you know what I would have done in your situation, or if I'll ever have a child, Myra? You know nothing about me." I stood up. "I'm done." I opened my purse and threw my credit card on the table. "This meal is on me. I'm going to the ladies room. And then I'll meet you outside," I said to Gabe before moving my face close to Myra's. "I don't believe anything you say. That fag Jimmy was probably right."



The next day, Friday, I realized that my credit card was missing. I checked the dining room table when I got home from school to see if Gabe had put it there. When I did not see it, I looked on top of Gabe's dresser, where he threw his spare change, receipts, keys, etc. The card was not there either. I called him at the gym, where he worked as a trainer.

"Gabe, do you have my Visa card?"

"Let me check."

I heard weights clanking and Madonna singing "Tell me love isn't true. It's just something that we do" in the background.

"I checked my wallet. It's not there," he said.

"Do you think you could have left it at the Backyard?" I asked.

"Sorry, Molly. I can't remember. I might have. Honestly, I just wanted to get out of there after that scene with Myra. Why don't you call them?"

I called the restaurant. The guy on the other end of the phone told me to hold while he checked. He put the phone down and I heard snippets of conversation. Someone said, "Be careful crossing the street."

The host picked up the phone. "Sorry, Ms. It's not here. Give me your phone number and I'll call if anyone turns it in."

I did and thanked him. Then I called the credit card company. As a way to verify my identity, the woman asked about recent charges. I told her that the last charge would be for dinner at the Backyard Café.

"I see some others here from 9:15 this morning."

"What?"

"Well there's a charge for a Samsung forty inch LCD television from Sears."

"I didn't buy that."

"Hold on. There's a couple other charges. Some DVDs from a website called the Adult Boutique. Debbie Does Dallas, Feeding Frenzy 3: Swallow the Leader, and Private Fetish 4 Pack." The woman had a monotone Texan accent.

I burst out laughing. "I didn't order those either."

"Hmm... There are also bulk orders of incense supplies from someplace called The Witch's Garden. Did you order those?"

"No." I felt my anger rising. "But I know who the witch is."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. It's obvious my credit card was stolen. The only legitimate charge is from the restaurant. The others aren't mine. Can you cancel the card?"

"Of course, Ms. Bonamici."

"Will I have to pay for the other charges?"

"No, ma'am. Obviously you have been the victim of fraud. Your acccount has fraud protection. I will erase the other charges and forward you a new card through the mail. In the meantime, I'd contact any businesses that might have your credit card on file... While I have you on the phone, would you like to hear about our rental car collision policy or accidental death and dismemberment insurance?"

"Not right now, but thank you."

When I hung up, I called Gabe again.

"The bitch stole my card."

"Myra?"

"She charged a television and some pornographic DVDs."

"Molly, that could have been anyone in this town."

"How many gay guys order incense in bulk from a place called the Witch's Garden and a pornographic movie entitled Debbie Does Dallas?"

He was silent.

"Gabe?"

"Molly, don't do anything rash. We will talk about what to do when I get home. You did cancel the credit card, right?"

I told him I did, then hung up. My impulse was to drive to Sacred Ashes and confront Myra, but I knew I had to calm myself and wait for Gabe. I poured a glass of wine, sat on the patio, listened to bird calls, the click of the bamboo stalks moving against each other in the wind, and the sound of water falling on pebbles at the base of the fountain.

After dinner, Gabe and I decided we would talk with Myra at the shop the next day. She opened at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. He said I was too angry to do anything that night. And besides, the card was canceled, so no more charges could be made.

His mother and her friend Evy were arriving tomorrow. We figured the two would be hungry after the plane ride so Gabe called Mrs. Callaghan and gave her directions to the Backyard Café across the street from Sacred Ashes, where we would meet them around 12:30, after our talk with Myra.



Saturday morning I took a quick shower, threw on my usual outfit, jeans and a black t-shirt, and headed to Espresso Boys. I told Gabe, who was sleeping late after a night at the bars, that I was going for coffee but would be back around 11am so we could go together to Myra's place. When I opened his bedroom door, he was sprawled out naked, twisted in his sheets. "Okay," he mumbled.

I knew Mr. Michaelis opened his coffee shop at 9am. I wanted to get there before the place was too crowded. He had mentioned that he knew Myra's history and I wanted his opinion about what had happened.

When I entered, he was explaining to a cute little blond guy how to make the cinnamon buns. There were only two customers in the shop - a tall thin black guy with high cheekbones and deepset animated eyes, and what appeared to be a lover or a very close friend, a handsome Robert Redford lookalike, who kept saying, "too much fun" as they watched a black-and-white film on the large television. I looked at the screen.

"It's All about Eve." The black guy smiled at me.

Bette Davis had just said, "Everybody has a heart - except some people."

"Great movie." I smiled and walked to the counter.

"Mr. Michaelis, do you have a few moments to talk?" The blond guy looked up from the cinnamon rolls, where he was squeezing the glaze from a piping bag. He appeared a bit panicked.

"Sure."

Michaelis said to the guy, "Don't worry. It's slow now. Won't pick up for an hour or so when the guys start dragging themselves in hungover, desperate for coffee. You're doing fine, Brian." He patted his shoulder, then came around the counter.

"Follow me."

We sat at one of the back tables by the counter with sugar and stirrers.

"You want a latte? Something to eat?"

"No. No. I don't want to take up your time. I know you're working."

He looked around. "Do I look busy?"

I laughed. "I guess not."

"Give me your hand. You look nervous"

His hand was warm.

"I'm a bit upset."

"What's wrong?" His face was concerned.

"Myra Bocca stole my credit card."

He slapped his other hand on the table and laughed. The blond guy looked over. "She's up to her old tricks."

"You said you knew her in Massachusetts. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?"

He shrugged his shoulders and lifted his arms in an a welcoming gesture.

"Did you date?"

"Molly, I know you're the type I can be perfectly frank with... I fucked her. We didn't date. Myra is a slut and, in addition," his face reddened at some memory, "she's one of the most evil people I ever met. She and I were part of a group that used to go drinking together. The two of us, her husband Lazarus, and another guy Joe. This is before Lazarus and she were married, by the way. I'm not the type of person who would sleep with another man's wife. I don't want you to get the wrong impression."

"I'm not judging."

"The guys and I would pick her up. One time she got in the car and said, 'I'm so fuckin' horny.' Now that's not something a woman says to guys unless she's asking for sex. She made the rounds with the three of us. We'd go out drinking, and take turns bringing her back to our place for the night. She loved it! Eventually, though, she showed more interest in Lazarus. I warned him. I said, 'She only wants your money.' You see, he was rich. Joe and I, we weren't poor, but we didn't have the fortune that Lazarus did. His family owned a hat company."

"This is what I don't get. Why would she steal my credit card when it's so obvious that I would find out?"

"Molly, you don't understand. Some people in this world are evil to the core and just don't give a shit. You ever hear of the term 'sociopath'?"

"Yes, of course."

"Myra is a sociopath. They do whatever they want. They don't think about the consequences. I read a couple books on the subject. I'm not a big reader, but after what she did to Lazarus, I had to understand. A friend of mine recommended an easy read, nothing too technical - The Sociopath Next Door. You should read it."

"Gabe and I went out to dinner with her the other night - that's when she stole my card. She told us that her stepchildren tried to screw her. Evidently, there was some trust that Lazarus and she had set up so that she, her children from a previous marriage, and the children of Lazarus would all be treated fairly when he died. Myra said the stepchildren wanted everything."

"That's a goddamn lie!" he said. Brian, the blond guy, looked over. Michaelis asked, "How are the buns?"

"My buns are fine. How are yours?"

Michaelis waved his hand at him and started laughing. "These gay guys crack me up. Make everything about sex."

"What's the real story about the trust, Mr. Michaelis?"

"Call me Alexander... By the way, she probably planned to steal your credit card or your money. Or to ingratiate herself to you so that she could use you in the future. That's how sociopaths work."

"Tell me the real story about her past."

"Those stepchildren - great people by the way - wanted nothing more than to settle the trust as it was designed. Myra went through five lawyers fighting them, claiming that all of Lazarus's assets belonged to her. Lazarus, he was a damn fine man, wanted everyone to be treated fairly. One of the best men I ever knew." His eyes filled up. "You should have seen the antics she pulled before he died."

"Like what?"

"Out of nowhere, after twenty years of marriage, she sent a sheriff to their house while she was at the restaurant. The guy handed Lazarus a deposition notice that she wanted a divorce. This after he treated her like a queen their whole marriage. Not only did he take care of her, but he took care of all her kids - bought them cars, gave them money, paid for schooling. As I said, he was a fine man - generous beyond measure."

"Why would she do something like that?"

"Cause she's rotten, Molly. She had the gall to tell one of the judges that she filed divorce simply because she wanted to find out how much money Lazarus had. Why not ask him directly? She suspected Lazarus was hiding assets from her. Meanwhile, she contributed nothing financially in all the years they were married... Lazarus was devastated. Those kids of his, they were fantastic. You could see how much they loved him. Took care of him to the end.

"And get this." He was getting agitated. "After she found out that he had lung cancer, she canceled the divorce, told one of the daughters who asked how he made out at his doctor's appointment that he was fine. The poor girl. She learned about the lung cancer after she called to check on a blood test for the coumadin he was taking. The nurse told her that the doctor had sent Lazarus and Myra home with an MRI disc of his lung. Told him to make an appointment with a cancer doctor right away. And you know what Myra did?

"She lied to the daughter. Said Lazarus was in perfect health, and the nurse must have confused the patients. Then she tried to take him to Florida the day after the appointment. His kids - best kids anyone could ask for - put a stop to that. Well it was all downhill from then on."

The door opened and we looked up at three hungover guys. Brian behind the counter glanced at Michaelis. "Guy's not too bright. I better get back up there. You think he could handle a few customers. Nice young man, but slow. There's two other things I want to tell you about what she did, though." He waved to Brian, "I'll be right there." Then he took both my hands in his. "These things will let you know just how bad she is. She fired an old lady waitress whose husband was dying just before Christmas so she could give a job to one of her granddaughter's friends. Told all the customers the lady had dropped dead! And the most heinous thing - is that the right word?"

"Yes."

"The most heinous thing is that she went to Lazarus's wake. You see, she planned it all out. Just wanted to torment them, play games. She plunked her ass right next to his coffin at the wake. What could his kids do? I tell you, they showed grace and poise. Lazarus would have been proud." He put a hand over his heart. "Halfway through the wake, when all the people were streaming through, offering their condolences, she pranced around the room, over-animated to get everyone's attention. I thought I was watching an episode from I Love Lucy. It was sick! She started taking down all the pictures of Lazarus just to cause a scene."

"Alexander, I can tell this is distressing you. Go back to work."

He took out a handkerchief and wiped sweat off his forehead. "She never made it out of there with the pictures. Lazarus's son, Jimmy, he bolted from the receiving line and grabbed the photographs from her hand." He laughed. "I thought I was witnessing a drone attack. Then a police officer buddy of one of the girls escorted her out."

"Wow. What a story."

"Yup. I still can't believe the things she did." He pointed his finger towards me as he walked away. "You watch out for her. You hear me. That bitch is capable of anything. And I mean anything."

"I will." I rose from the table and thanked him on my way out. The two guys at the front were still engrossed in All About Eve. "Fasten your seatbelts," Bette Davis said, "It's going to be a bumpy night."



On our way to Myra's shop, Gabe told me he had asked his police officer friend to meet us there.

We were turning onto Wilton Drive headed south. A couple of shirtless guys walked their dogs on the sidewalks. A guy on a bicycle, also shirtless, turned to look at one of the them and was almost hit by a car.

"Jesus, these guys are crazy," I said.

"Horny, Molly, they're all horny. Any chance they can get to show off their six-pack abs, they do. I think I see that guy over there at least four times a day." He took his hand off the wheel for a second and pointed. "I'm surprised the paws of his bulldog aren't raw."

"Ow." I cringed at the thought. "Poor dog... There's your friend." We pulled into a spot in front of a hair salon a few doors down from Sacred Ashes, where a bulky fair-skinned police officer with red hair and a beard stood. He smiled when he saw us.

We got out of the car and greeted him. He was wearing dark sun glasses but took them off and shook my hand. "I'm Johnny. Gabe's told me all about you."

"Great to meet you and thank you for coming." I looked at Gabe, who was wearing black sweatpants and a blue tanktop. I wished I had dressed lighter. The sun was hot as usual. I was perspiring and glad that I was wearing black. "Gabe, you never explained why you invited Johnny. We're not going to have her arrested, are we?" I looked at both their faces.

Johnny said, "Nah. Gabe just asked my advice. I suggested I'd tag along since I'm on duty today. Purely an intimidation tactic is all. To be honest, Molly, even if we did charge her with credit card fraud, the chances of her being arrested are slim. South Florida has one of the highest rates of fraud in the nation. The courts don't even prosecute unless it's a significant amount of money. I'm sure Myra is aware of this. I did a background check on her. She has a history of petty crimes - shoplifting, check forgery, a slew of parking tickets, and yes, other cases of fraud. She was charged a few times, but she hired good lawyers, and either had the charges dropped or was put on probation. No jail time. I'm sorry to say she knows just how far to go."

We were walking in the direction of her shop. Gabe pulled me toward him, under the awnings from the shop so that I was in the shade. My face was sweating from the combination of heat, anger, and anxiety.

"After you," Johnny said, opening the door of her shop. Myra was on her knees behind the counter in the back, arranging new-age trinkets. The door chimed when we entered so she stood up. When she saw Johnny, her face turned white.

"Can I help you, officer?" she said. "Hi Molly and Gabe. I had a great time the other night." She put on a fake smile and picked some lint off her yellow dress.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, you can. I'd like to ask you some questions about a credit card you might have used."

Her jaw quivered and she looked at me with hateful scorn. "Certainly, I'll be right with you." Then she bent down and grabbed something from the case, a piece of crystal, and threw it at me. Her aim was awful. It hit Johnny in the chest. He pulled his gun from the holster.

"Stand right there. Don't move."

"Go fuck yourself, you bastard. I hate cops." She ran past the three of us crashing into the merchandise. Her display of cards fell over. I caught one of them. "A stone has no uncertainty - Carl Jung," it read. The whole situation struck me as absurd. Johnny chased her out the door into the street. Gabe and I started laughing. I picked up the crsytal wolf that she had thrown.

"I feel like I'm in a bad movie," Gabe said.

Then we heard the loud screech of a car braking and a dull thump. The both of us ran outside. Mrs Callaghan and her friend Evy were getting out of a yellow Mustang convertible. A crowd had gathered. People from the Backyard Café streamed onto the sidewalk. Sal, the waiter, ran over with an emergency kit. I also noticed the two guys I had seen watching the movie at Espresso Boys earlier. The shirtless dogwalkers were there, too. I pushed my way through the people. A white-haired man told me Myra had tripped and slid across the pavement before she was hit by the car, which dragged her along the street when her clothing got caught on the edge of the undercarriage. "As soon as the driver realized what happened, she backed up, thinking she had driven over the body."

Myra's head was turned to one side, blood streamed from her nostrils and mouth, creating a halo-shaped pool around her head. Her face was bruised and scraped, the skin from her nose had ripped off revealing the cartilage, and her eye was wide open, pupil dilated. Her dentures lay on the street, smeared with blood and phlegm. The shin from her left leg protuded at an angle, its jagged edge pointing towards the sun.

The bulldog ran towards her body and began gnawing on the bone. The owner dashed over and picked him up. The dog's paws, face, and fur were bloodied. The guy pulled a blue T-shirt with ARMANI printed on the front from the back of his shorts. He began wiping the blood off his dog, then vomited, splattering individuals among the crowd. People squealed in disgust.

Mrs. Callaghan used her cane to nudge people as she made her way to the body. "Move the hell out of the way," she shouted. "I'm a nurse... Evy, put on gloves from that emergency kit." A skinny guy opened the kit on the hood of the car and assisted Evy as she pushed her trembling hands into the gloves. "I'd do the CPR myself, but I can't bend down. Too much metal in me. I'll probably break something or loosen a screw," Mrs. Callaghan said, "You gotta do chest compressions. I'll tell you how."

Johnny tried to guide the both of them away from Myra's body, but Mrs. Callaghan hollered. "We've got to do something until the paramedics arrive. Believe me, I know what I'm doing." Johnny gently persisted in trying to move her away. She tapped him with her purple cane. "Officer, I got this. Call the paramedics."

"I already have."



Mrs. Callaghan said, "Listen to me carefully, Evy. Place the palm of one of your hands on top of the other. Then push down on her sternum thirty times. Think 'Staying Alive.'"

"Of course I want her to live, Maureen!" She bent down. Her purple hat fell onto the street. A short fat guy picked it up.

"I mean the song," Maureen said.

"Are you crazy? How can you think of a song at a time like this?"

"No, I mean as you are doing chest compressions sing the song in your head. It will give you the correct rhythm."

"But I don't know the song!" She was doing the compressions. "Oh, crikey, Maureen. I don't think I can do this!" Her face was panicked.

"Stay calm, Evy. Of course you can," Mrs. Callaghan answered.

The crowd began to shout, "You can do it, Evy! You can do it, Evy!"

The tall black guy stepped forward and began to sing, "Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother you're stayin' alive, stayin' alive. Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin'. And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive!"

The crowd joined in, "Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive!"

Evy pumped. Her gloves were bloody.

Johnny said to Gabe and me, "I've never seen anything like this."

"I can't believe this is really happening," Gabe said.

Sirens sounded in the distance. The crowd stepped back.

Evy screamed, "Oh crikey, I think she snuffed it!" Then she burst into tears.

Maureen walked over with her cane and put her arm around her. "You did your best." She led her to the curb, where Gabe, Johnny, and I stood. We watched the paramedics take over. Additional police cars showed up and a van with "Broward Sheriff's Traffic Homicide Unit" printed on its side.

We all told Evy she did a wonderful job, but she was unconsolable. "God, I'm knackered," she said between sobs.

Mrs. Callaghan saw our confused look, "She means she's exhausted."

Johnny had moved to speak with the police officers who were questioning members of the crowd. Then he came back and told us that Mrs. Callaghan and Evy needed to go to the station for questioning, but it wouldn't take long; the accident was obviously not their fault. They were going the speed limit, and he and members of the crowd could attest that Myra ran in front of the car without even looking. He explained that their car would need to be towed and inspected but they would most likely get it back by tomorrow. Gabe and I thanked Johnny for his help and led the women to our car. I caught a glimpse of Myra's body on the stretcher. The blanket had fallen off one side. Her left breast swung loose like a flap and her mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners. However dishonest she was, she didn't deserve to die that way. The finality saddened me, and reminded me of the inevitability of death.

I thought of the quote from the card - "A stone has no uncertainty" - and was reminded of the black obsidian rock in my pocket. I tossed it towards the base of her stretcher and watched it roll past her body into the shadows of the crowd.

10 comments:

  1. Sad, funny, and horrifying. A story with quirky unusual characters showcasing life in an alternative community.

    Enjoyed very much.

    Jake

    ReplyDelete
  2. Enjoyed this story and read it twice. The dark humor and the writing style made me go back for a second time and will probably read it again just to spend a little more time with these characters. I will look for more from this author.
    Stanley

    ReplyDelete
  3. I enjoyed several elements of this story: the relationship between Molly and Gabe, the snapshot of gay life in South Florida, and Mr. Mulhern's ironic pastiche of the pivotal scene in The Great Gatsby, where Myrtle (Myra) is run over by a yellow car. I laughed out loud when I realized that the owner of Espresso Boys, Michaelis, has the same name as the owner of the coffee shop in The Great Gatsby.

    "Sacred Ashes," too, is an ironic play on the Valley of Ashes, where Myrtle lives in Fitzgerald's novel. Myra/Myrtle is a parody of Gatsby himself with her wanting to tell Molly and Gabe the fabricated version of her life, just as Gatsby tells Nick, the narrator of that American classic, his invented life.

    The over-the-top scene at the end with the "Staying Alive" performer is hilarious. Yet, Mr. Mulhern handles larger themes of grief, death, and an unusual love pair with great poignancy.

    Andrea

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great momentum. I absorbed the unusual circumstances as I rushed to discover what happens next. I felt rewarded when the devil got her due. Thank you for that story.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I found Molly to be curious and interesting. She seems a bit callous but she has sensitivity that I find intriguing and makes me want to know more about her. One of the other reviewers wrote "quirky" and I would add likable in spite of her seemingly hard view of life. A great story. Obviously this writer is one to watch for new material. Thanks for entertaining me for what was really the better part of my day.
    Blink

    ReplyDelete
  6. An outrageously funny story that conjured a neighbourhood, as well as the main characters, with finely tuned skill and great slapstick timing. Extremely enjoyable,
    Thank you,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you all for the comments. I am so appreciative.

    James

    ReplyDelete
  8. This story about life in South Florida made me laugh out loud. It reminded me a bit of Carl Hiassen with its hilarious characters and plot. I hope to see more stories from this author.

    Alex

    ReplyDelete
  9. I know a real-life person just like Myra Bocca. I hope she reads this excellent piece and realizes that she is famous, or should I say infamous. In fact, she's from Massachusetts, just like Myra, as well. Great story.

    Seamus Nurelm

    ReplyDelete
  10. Reminds me of the quote, "Beware the fury of a patient man" by John Dryden. I read this story two times because I enjoyed it so much.

    Patricia Francis

    ReplyDelete