You Can't Take It With You by Nancy Cole Silverman

Two nosy old ladies go investigating a mysterious new resident who hasn't left her rooms for a week; by Nancy Cole Silverman.

The poster outside the bistro read Mario the Magnificent, an evening with the unusual. Wine and cheese, four-thirty to six. Don't miss this exclusive live performance for Sunrise residents only.

"See, I told you. No cover charge. It's free." Barbara, her short curly grey hair looking like it had been styled by the same lightning bolt that had charred her skin leather brown, pointed with a long gnarled finger to the board. "We should go. What da ya think?"

"I can't see." Molly with her thin arms shaking and hunched round-shouldered over her walker, squinted in the direction of the bulletin board. Her eyes blurred behind bottle thick lenses. "Is he is a good looking lad?" she asked, her thin Irish brogue, despite her years as an expat, still evident.

"Molly, are you drinking at this hour?" Barbara pointed to the to thin clear plastic tube running from inside a water bottle attached to Molly's walker and up to a sip straw, resting on her shoulder.

"I don't call it my Johnny Walker for nothing." Molly smiled and with small movement of her head, as though she might be keeping beat to an Irish jig, took a sip.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, push the damn thing this way, and read it yourself."

Molly edged the walker with its bright green tennis ball glides along the cement walkway and, coming to a stop in front of the kiosk, stared at the announcement.

"Humph! It says here Mario the Magnificent solves Mysteries of the Universe."

She focused on the picture of the young man with dark curly hair, bare-chested and dressed in gold Lamé palazzo pants that hung low around his well-defined torso. His hands in the air like a magician. "Looks to me like this fella could use a bit more mystery himself. Those pants slip any lower and the world's going to know exactly what the good Lord gave or didn't give the lad."


"What? You'd rather this Mario tell us what mystery meat it is they keep serving us around here?"

Grabbing Molly's Johnny Walker, Barbara pulled her away from the front of the bistro and scolded, "If you don't watch out, Molly, just maybe this Mario fella will tell us all what really happened to that husband of yours. What do you think about that?"

"I'm thinking that for a woman's whose nev'r been married you talk too much."

Straightening her bent shoulders, Molly pulled the walker abruptly from Barbara's grip, picked it up, or at least picked it up as well as a 92 year-old woman might, turned it in the opposite direction and began to toddle towards the neighboring casitas. Then stopped. Out of breath, Molly planted her walker on the sidewalk and took another sip from the straw and point-ed down the path.

"But far as mysteries go, now that's one right there."

Ahead of them, a sign hung on the door to one of the small villas. DO NOT DISTURB. The shuttered windows facing the garden walk were closed and the dark brown afternoon shade designed to protect residents from the late afternoon sun, hung unevenly across the patio.

"That widow in A-14, now she's the mystery. I wonder what this Mario the Magnificent might have to say 'bout her."

For the last week, rumors about the identity of the widow in A-14, Mrs. Anna Peters, a name the residents of the Palm Desert's Sunset Retirement Center believed to be an obvious pseudonym, rattled around like the late afternoon breeze through the leaves of the Ironwood trees. Word that the mysterious resident was a former silent film star, the disgraced wife of a Saudi prince hoping to hide her identity, or perhaps a CIA operative now part of the witness pro-tection program and under orders not to be seen, ran rampant.

"I think we should knock on her door." Barbara, in her red PF Flyers jogged arthritically ahead, her bob and weave only steps in front of Molly, moving at the pace of an inch worm. With a firm fist Barbara tapped three times on the door. "Hello?"

"Go away!" A soft female voice from behind the door sounded adamant.

From beneath the eves of the front porch the two women looked at each other. What do we do?

"Knock again," Molly said, "Tell her were here to... to... to inspect the water filter. What else?"

"What water filter? I don't have a water filter. Did you get a water filter when you moved in?" Barbara looked at Molly incredulously and made a mental note to herself to ask manage-ment why she hadn't been offered one. "She's not going to believe we're here for that."

"Oh for heaven sakes, we're two old broads standing on her front porch, what do you think she's going believe? Tell her we're with the Welcome Wagon."

"Do they even still have that anymore?"

"Just do it." Molly stomped her walker firmly in place and glared at Barbara.

Turning back to the door, Barbara prepared to knock, her fist in the air, when sud-denly -

The door opened.

A small, silver haired woman answered. She looked like she hadn't slept in days, and was dwarfed by stacks of boxes that lined the entry and piled haphazardly into the room be-hind her.

"What is it you want?"

Barbara turned to Molly, speechless. What do we want?

Molly pushed her Johnny Walker forward. "We were just headed by and... and we thought perhaps you... ah... you -"

"Might like to join us this evening," Barbara interrupted. "Mario the Magnificent is going to be at the bistro tonight. We thought it might be fun."

"Mario the Magnificent?" Anna hugged the door. One good shove and she could be rid of them. "Never heard of him. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm really quite busy. I've work to do." She started to push the door shut.

Barbara stepped forward, a red PF Flyer in the doorway. "Perhaps we might help?"

"Help?" With a long sigh, Anna looked side to side at the boxes surrounding her, then back at Barbara, her eyes scanning her intruder's skinny frame critically.

Like a deer in headlights, Barbara froze.

Molly scooted her walker closer to the front door and taking off her glasses, wiped them with her shirttail and peered into the darkened room.

"Yes, help. We realized that since you moved in no one had seen you and we thought we might stop by and perhaps we could -"

"Check out the rumors no doubt." Anna straightened herself against the door.

"Rumors?" Molly's voice cracked. "Why would you possibly think there might be rumors?"

"Thin walls, ladies, and a very chatty housekeeper, that is, if one can really call her that." She gestured to the clutter in the room lined with boxes, old world statues, tiffany lamps and several antique maritime clocks, then turned and indicated for them to follow. "I suppose Lisa considers it dinner conversation. I tip her to bring me something every night from that cafe-teria you call a restaurant. I'm not up for the public, not yet."

Clearing off a section of the couch, a beige satin camel back sofa, Anna patted it lightly and asked Barbara to sit next to her, then nodded to a corner wing chair for Molly.

"And from what she's told me, you must be Molly." Anna eyed Molly, stood up and reached into an open packing box on the coffee table. "I've a teakettle here somewhere." She paused mid-sentence, looking at small items as she pulled them from within the box as though she were reliving memories; a crystal salt and pepper shaker, a porcelain winged dove, a silver letter opener. "Ah... I suppose I could offer you a cup, but as you can see I'm really not in a po-sition to entertain."

"Tisn't a problem. I come with my own refreshment." Mary winked at the bottle at-tached to her walker and took a long sip.

"Yes, so I've heard. Lisa told me that as well. She gave me quite an earful. Mind you, I'm a teetotaler myself." She stared disapprovingly at the plastic bottle attached to Molly's walker. "Such a shame about that husband of yours, leaving like he did and with all that money. Awful thing. And you," Anna gave Barbara another very long evaluating stare, "no doubt must be Barbara... the runner; lives alone... never married. Is that right?"

Barbara nodded.

Anna pulled the teapot from within the box, exhaled, and then holding it against her chest, announced that she wanted to set the record straight.

"As for me, my name is Anna Peters. I'm neither a former silent film star, nor the disgraced wife of a Saudi prince and I've certainly never worked for the CIA."

Barbara glanced over at Molly. Busted.

"Truth is, I'm afraid I'm nothing so interesting. What I am is a retired school teacher and the reason I'm here - unfortunately - and not off celebrating my fiftieth anniversary with my husband, is because... he died, quite unexpectedly."

She sighed, put the teapot down on the table, then looked back at the box and con-tinued to pull items from within its stash. "You'll have to forgive me. I've been doing this all week. Unpacking than packing again, I can't seem to decide what to do with any of this."

Then pulling a large, loosely wrapped jar shaped item from within the box, she smiled and sat down.

"Ahh! Here we are. This is Albert, retired seamen. Allow me to introduce you."

Anna un-wrapped an alabaster urn and placed in on the coffee table in front of them and stared at it fondly.

"I just haven't decided on the right spot for him yet. Odd we should end up in the desert. Oh, well. What do you think? Here?"

Barbara shifted uncomfortably on the couch and shot Mary a look. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea.

"Not quite the Mediterranean is it, Albert, but what are we going to do?" Then drawing her attention back to the ladies, Anna added, "It was our fiftieth anniversary. We had booked a cruise to celebrate. It was a glorious day, all warm and sunny and we had just boarded. I was looking off the balcony. There were seagulls in the air - we love bird watching - I turned around to tell Albert and there he was, dead." She tapped the table beside the urn. "He just sat down, mopped his brow and boom! He was gone. Can you believe it? We hadn't even left port."

"Oh, you poor dear." Barbara leaned forward to grab her hand.

"Yes, he promised me he'd never leave me. 'Course you can't count on these things, can you? But we had agreed that whoever passed first would find a way to let the other know they were okay. Which is why, I'm sure, if it's at all possible, Albert would have found a way to tell me where it is."

"Where what is?" Barbara asked.

"My ring, my wedding band actually. He took it with him. Well, not really with him, not in the literary sense anyway. What I mean is, that he had it with him when he died." Anna looked longingly at the urn. "You see, I never took my ring off, ever, but right before our trip it broke. I suppose after all these years the metal had just worn thin. Albert took it to have it repaired. He wanted to surprise me, but I knew. He never could keep a secret from me. I think he was going to give it me on the cruise."

Molly eyed the items in the room and boxes suspiciously. "So you think this ring, Anna, you believe it's here somewhere, in one of these boxes?"

"It's why I won't leave the apartment. Not until I have it."

"Hummm." Molly took a long sip from the straw connected to her Johnny Walker. "And you don't suppose, by any chance, Albert might have decided it was time to upgrade you from a simple gold band to... Oh, I don't know, maybe something closer to the Hope Diamond?"

"Molly!" Barbara stood up and pulled Mary's Johnny Walker away from her. "I think what matters here is that Anna's lost her ring. It's here in these boxes somewhere and we need to help her find it. And we if can't, Anna, then I think you should join us tonight at the bis-tro to see Mario, perhaps he'll tell us where your ring is."

The doorman standing outside the Sunrise Bistro greeted visitors with the slight salute of his white gloves and the tip of his hat. He looked as though he was direct from central casting, tall, slim and perfect for the part with the just the right amount of grey around the temples and a warm smile. The Bistro's glass front doors were draped in black velvet and held open with gold braided rope, making the late afternoon watering hole look more like a Vegas night club than a simple cafeteria. Inside, small café tables accented with white tablecloths and flickering hurri-cane lamps surrounded the stage that stood empty, save for a large easel with a sign that read, Mario the Magnificent. In the back of the room, more for cosmetic purposes than effect, an old-fashioned tripod studio light focused on the stage.

It was barely six p.m. and the bistro was packed with residents who stopped talking and nodded curiously as Barbara, Molly and Anna, like ducklings, waddled past their tables. The last to be seated, Molly reached into her bag for a flask and quickly topped off the drink in front of her, then looking over her shoulder reached slyly for Barbara's glass. Barbara declined. Anna sank back in her chair, her hand outstretched, covering the top of her drink.

As the lights dimmed and the background music swelled with the sound of Andy Williams singing Charade, the big spotlight began to swing wildly across the stage and the an-nouncer called for the audience to welcome tonight's performer.

"Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Mario the Magnificent."

The audience applauded enthusiastically, while Mario, dressed in a black tux with tails, ran up onto the stage, bowed deeply and grabbing the mic, surprised them all.

"What, you don't like it?" Mario looked down at his black trousers and with one hand pulled at them while making a face like that of a disappointed mime out to the audience. "I know, I'm upset, too. The poster outside had me in palazzo pants, but hey, management tells me this performance is rated PG - and since nobody here was able to get hold of any of your parents for permission... this is what you get."

The audience laughed, the announcer running the spotlight played a drum roll.

"But seriously, folks. It's a pleasure to be with you here tonight."

Like a seasoned performer, Mario leaned down, shook the hand of one resident, kissed the cheek of an elderly lady, then explained he would do a few magic tricks with the help of his young assistant. Moments later a full figured young woman wearing a headscarf, a low cut midriff and in what looked to be the same gold lamé palazzo pants Mario had worn in the pic-ture, danced towards him on stage.

Mario looked at the woman then back to the audience, the look on his face, surprise as he gestured to his own trousers.

"And now you know who wears the pants in this family!"

Again, the drum roll, followed by even more laughter.

Anna muttered to her table mates that despite the young lady's attempts to hide her identity beneath the near transparent head scarf, the girl on stage looked remarkably like Lisa, the young woman assigned to help her settle into her quarters, and was no doubt an employee of the Sunrise Retirement Center. But nobody, least of all the men, who appeared to be enjoying her exotic dance on stage, seemed to notice, or if they did, to care.

Mario began the show with a series of card tricks that wowed the audience, then on to colorful scarfs, pulling them from within Lisa's low cut midriff along with tears of laughter from the audience. From there he moved on to disappearing acts with birds and white bunnies. Finally, when the last of the white doves were placed back in a bird cage, covered with a silk scarf and made to disappear, he stepped forward to the audience.

"Is there someone here named Molly?"

Molly put her wine glass down on the table, raised her hand slowly then leaned closer to Barbara and whispered in her ear. "Did you put him up to this?"

Without moving her head, Barbara shifted her eyes side to side. No way.

"I have a message from someone you know." Mario's hand was in the air, like an antenna, his head cocked to one side as though he were listening to someone.

"I'm sorry I can't identify the relationship, but he seems to think you know who he is. I believe his name is Mark, or Mike, or -"

"Marty," Molly said, and feeling the effects of the liquor, leaned over again to Bar-bara and whispered, "now, that's a body they'll never find." Then back to Mario she shouted, "he was... is... my husband."

"Marty wants you to know you were right... you can't take it with you. Does that make any sense?"

Mario's words made more sense than Molly wanted to admit. You can't take it with you had been the last thing Molly had screamed at her husband. They were in the park-ing lot behind the Sunrise Retirement Center, at the foot of a new construction site for additional units and their discussion was heated. Marty was drunk and threatening to leave, Molly was an-gry. Fearful he might return home and take with him her secret stash of gold coins hidden in her sock drawer she reacted, perhaps hastily. Getting into the car Molly accidentally - or maybe in hindsight, on purpose - put the car in reverse and pushed her husband into an open hole. The fol-lowing day the Center scrapped the project and the hole was filled. And today Marty was push-ing up fairy dusters and Molly wasn't talking.

Molly shrugged.

"And he says he has a message for you. He wants to warn you."

"Warn me?" Molly straightened up, her eyes sweeping the room.

"He says you need to be careful what you wish for."

"Aye." Molly picked up her drink and saluted Mario, anxious for him to move on. "That I do."

Mario spun around, pointed to the audience, and asking by name for several peo-ple, continued with his readings.

"Karen, you need to call your sister, your niece is expecting. Daryl, time to stop driving, my friend. And Margo, if you want to win the lottery, buy a ticket." Then he stopped and put his hand to his head.

"I believe I'm reading romance in the air. Maestro, if we might have a little music, please." From the back of the room Some Enchanted Evening started to play. "Is there someone in the audience who's wearing red tennis shoes?"

"Over there." Several in the group shouted and pointed in Barbara's direction. Laughter ensued as Mario jumped off the stage and approached Barbara's table.

Barbara looked down at her feet, not wanting to make eye contact. She hadn't changed her shoes all day long. Not that she usually did. Retirement centers weren't big on style. The shoes were comfortable, if not a habit.

Taking her hand, Mario asked Barbara to stand.

"And what is your name, my dear, certainly not red tennis shoes."

Barbara laughed. "No," she said, "It's Barbara."

"Yes, Barbara, the planner. And I see you're here tonight with friends."

"Yes, I asked them."

"No husband?"

"No," Barbara laughed. "I've never been married."

Is that right?"

Barbara nodded.
"Well, Ms. Barbara. I'm going to tell you that I see romance in your future. In fact, I be-lieve you have an admirer in the audience tonight." Mario turned and with one hand outstretched to the crowd asked, "Am I right?"

The crowd applauded. Mario paused then nodded to a table in the back. An elderly gentleman, neatly dressed in a plaid sports coat and carrying a long stemmed red rose, stood up and approached the table. Handing the rose to Barbara, he whispered something to her then po-litely disappeared back into the crowd. Barbara grabbed her chest and sat down.

The crowd responded with more applause, then Mario, with his hands in the air, asked for quiet.

Anna smiled at Barbara holding the long stemmed red rose in her hand and began to fidget with her napkin. She missed Albert and, running her thumb round the empty space on her ring finger, started to look around the room for an excuse to leave. She didn't like the flash of this evening's performance. The hocus pocus of it all made her uncomfortable. She wanted to return to the quiet of her own quarters, but before she could get up, Mario called her name.

"And finally, I'm looking for someone named Anna. Anna, you know who you are. Don't stand or identify yourself. The person wishing to communicate with you knows you don't like that, but he has a message for you."

Anna sat very still. She felt warm and flushed, claustrophobic among all these peo-ple she didn't know. She sensed everyone in the room looking at her. Everything was moving in slow motion.

Mario paused and stood like a statue, his hand to his mouth, he appeared to be con-centrating on a voice from above. Then glancing up at the ceiling, he smiled and said, "You're sure?"

As if there had been some silent communication between the magician and some greater power, he stepped forward, his eyes scanning the crowd, and finding Anna, he stared di-rectly at her.

"He says you've been looking for something. He's very sorry that he couldn't give it to you in person. He won't tell me what it is, but he says you know..."

Anna could feel her throat tighten. Tears began to form behind her eyes. She looked down at her hands and felt for the empty space on her ring finger.

"He says you need to go back and look in the carry-on. It's there."

Barbara and Molly knew before they even reached Anna's doorstep the next after-noon that something had changed. Outside, the boxes the ladies had unpacked yesterday were now neat, collapsed, stacked and sorted by size and lined the front porch.

Barbara knocked softly.

Anna answered in her robe, looking as though she hadn't slept, her wiry grey hair, previously tied into a matronly bun now hung in a tangled mess about her shoulders.

"Did you find it?" Barbara asked

"No," Anna said, shaking her head, "it's not there. There was nothing. I went through everything. I'm afraid I just can't deal with it. I'm beat. I'm sorry but I'm just not in the mood today." She started to shut door.

Barbara stepped forward, her hand firmly on the door. "Let's talk."

"What's there to talk about? If Albert really could reach me, send me a message, he certainly wouldn't do it via that cheap magic act last night. It's over. Face it, ladies, the man's a fraud. I told you his assistant looked like Lisa. No doubt the girl's told him about my ring. She knows how desperate I am to find it. It was nothing but a parlor trick, that's all it was."

"I disagree." Molly shuffled her Johnny Walker forward. "Oh maybe that romantic little introduction 'tween Barbara and that grey haired gent sitting in the back of the room with his long stemmed red rose... maybe that was a set up... but 'tween you and me, that young lad knew a few things 'bout my late husband to chill my bones." She took a deep breath and pushed her bulky frame and walker closer to the door. "But I don't plan to stand here on your doorstep and say much more. Invite me in, woman. We've things to talk about."

Anna backed away from the door. Inside the house was dark, the oak shutters at the windows still tightly shut, the only light from the tiffany lamp behind the antique Chippendale sofa. There was no sign of yesterday's chaos of boxes, stacked to the rafters with newspapers everywhere. Everything was in order, shipshape. A life-sized old world brass statue of Atlas holding a globe over his head had been placed in the corner of the living room. Books and knickknacks, collector's items, like those from flea markets, had all been methodically arranged on the bookshelves along with Albert's collection of birds and maritime clocks. On the coffee table, a handmade doily had been placed beneath the urn, while on the couch an outline of An-na's body, still warm, showed where she'd slept.

Barbara spoke first. "You look like you could use some fresh air? Let's go out back." She nodded to the French doors leading to the apartment's small terrace. "Get the carry-on that Mario mentioned last night and let's go through it together, on the patio table, outside."

Anna shook her head. "I've already looked, several times. It's not there."

Behind them, one of the old maritime clocks chimed. Anna glanced back at the bookshelf. "How appropriate."

"What's that?" Barbara asked.

"Albert's clock. Eight bells. It means end of watch. You didn't hear it?"

Barbara shook her head and put her arm around Anna's shoulder. Neither she nor Molly had heard the chimes. "Anna you're tired. Come on. Let's go outside."

Anna forced her feet to move forward. She had to. It was time. The ring was lost and Albert wasn't coming back, she knew that. The clock had said as much. End of watch. Time to move on.

"Give me a minute," she said. "I've got a bottle of wine. Albert bought it for the trip. We always toasted to new beginnings. Maybe now's the time to open it."

Molly stopped halfway through the living room on her way to the patio and bal-anced herself on her walker. "I thought you didn't drink?"

"I make the occasional exception."

Anna disappeared into the kitchen. Barbara and Molly settled themselves on the terrace. Beneath them a dry creek bed, peaceful with the soft pastel colors of desert succulents, and quiet with the setting of the late afternoon sun felt calming.

Moments later Anna joined them on the patio. Flung over her shoulder was the car-ry-on, in her hands a wicker tray with a bottle of wine and three glasses. She placed them down on the table. A light breeze kicked up and there was a soft cooing of the desert doves in the background.

"There's not much to look through, but see for yourself, it's not here."

Molly unzipped the bag and turning it over, emptied out the contents; a pair of avi-ator sun glasses, a baseball hat, a tube of sun screen, Albert's pill caddy, a vinyl folder with their itinerary, their tickets, passports. Nothing.

"She's right," Molly said. "It's not here."

"I'm sorry, Anna. I was so hopeful after last night, after what Mario had said, I thought for sure you'd find it." Barbara pushed the bag back across the table.

"You know what I think?" Molly picked up a wine glass. "I think we need to make a toast. To being careful what we wish for."

At that moment a bird flew up and perched on the railing. Its head cocked in the di-rection of the ladies, looking directly at them, then hopping along the bar as though it expected something.

"Wait. Not yet." Anna reached for the carry-on. "I almost forgot. We need to do something." Inside the zipper compartment she pulled out a bag of sunflower seeds.

Barbara and Mary looked at each other. Do you suppose?

Barbara shook her head. The bag was sealed. There was no way.

"Albert loved to feed the birds. He insisted I bring this along for the trip. I forgot all about it."

Anna opened the bag. Inside she could feel something smooth and round between her fingers. Her heart beat faster.

"Oh, my god!" Slowly, withdrawing her hand from the bag, Anna opened her palm. The three women all stared in disbelief. There, in middle of the pile of dark seeds, shining like a yellow star was Albert's promise. "It's my ring."

1 comment:

  1. Fun story and good character development. I got a kick out of things like the "Johnny Walker." Nicely done.