Seven Stories to Read Before They Become Movies
THE LAST MARBLE
Penrod Zellstein’s mother was ninety-three and in reasonably good physical shape, considering she was born when Theodore Roosevelt was in the middle of his second term. However, much to Penrod’s dismay, while in her late eighties, the old lady’s mind slowly drifted and was now, more or less, residing somewhere between Jupiter and Pluto.
The earliest hint of this tragic condition was characterized by her perfectly reasonable observations about the past, which she would then connect to whatever happened to be happening, in the present.
Like in a restaurant, if Penrod, while studying the menu, were to ask if she would fancy an omelet, she might say, ‘I used to make you the nicest omelets when you were little…with sour cream and jelly. You loved them. Do you remember?’
A harmless statement made by an adoring, nostalgic mother –– certainly nothing that would move a son to summon the Paramedics. However, when the order arrived, she would look at it and say, ‘I used to make you the nicest omelets when you were little…with sour cream and jelly. You loved them. Do you remember?’ And then when she would be half way through her omelet, she would urge Penrod to take some and when he did, or even if he refused, she would repeat, ‘I used to make you the nicest omelets when you were little…with sour cream and jelly. You loved them. Do you remember?’
And so, a perfectly understandable didactic, by bent of its maddening and endless repetition, was suddenly an early-warning, tocsin of a mental meltdown.
It was Sarah’s first time in Atlantic City and everything she saw and heard thrilled her. The ocean, its waves endlessly pounding the broad sandy beach. The wide, seemingly endless boardwalk, alive with throngs of happy people. The shops, arcades and entertainment piers. The fashionably dressed couples riding in big rattan rolling chairs, each being pushed by sweating foreign looking men. It was almost too wonderful to bear. And now, to have a real date — her very first date with a boy — it was just extraordinary.
Morris Blinderman was sixteen, not quite a year older than Sarah. He was in Atlantic City visiting his cousin, Ida Blinderman, Sarah’s best girlfriend. Morris was from St. Louis and Ida had confided to Sarah that the Mid-West branch of the Blinderman family was very, very poor. Given that Ida Blinderman wore nothing but her sister’s hand-me-down clothing, Sarah imagined the St. Louis Blindermans to be very poor, indeed.
Morris was a nice looking boy — thin without being skinny, with thick, jet-black hair. He was about an inch shorter than Sarah and, like Sarah, this was his first visit to Atlantic City. Actually, his first trip outside the city limits of St. Louis. And Sarah was the first girl he had ever taken out on anything even resembling a real date. He was nervous.
If repetition was phase one of his mother’s mental declivity, story-telling soon took its place. Like most grown progeny, Penrod had heard all the old family stories so often, he knew them by heart. He had to will himself not to silently mouth them, word for word, whenever his mother decided to tell one.
He mother might ask, sweetly, for the umteenth time, “Did I ever tell you about your aunt Molly who swore she never slept?”
And, without waiting for his answer she would dive right into the aunt Molly story, having forgotten she’d told it not more than fifteen minutes before.
On a good day, Penrod’s mother could tell him that story, plus a few others, so many times, he was ready to rip off his clothing and run naked and screaming out of the Florida condo, which he had purchased for her and his father, Harry.
At precisely nine in the morning, Morris Blinderman had called for Sarah at her apartment — a third-floor walkup rented by her father for the family’s first two-week summer vacation, away from Philadelphia.
Sarah’s mother had packed a lunch for them — two cream cheese and jelly sandwiches carefully wrapped in waxed paper and two apples.
Morris carried the little lunch bag as they walked the two blocks east, to the ocean, then south, along the boardwalk. The wide beach was packed with people, a seemingly unbroken stain of black bathing costumes running from the boardwalk directly into the sea. Large umbrellas provided shade for blankets spread with food hampers. Happy children ran through the mass, scattering wakes of sand, their high-pitched shouts mixed with the crash of waves and screech of gulls.
Sarah and Morris strolled the boardwalk, passing block after block of shops, until, finally, they reached their destination: The World Famous Steel Pier.
The pier was a huge, fun city, perched on thousands of wooden pilings that marched, like massive log soldiers, for a quarter mile from the boardwalk into the sea. And resting on their shoulders, was the most amazing array of exotic entertainment: movies with live Vaudeville shows, and big band music, arcades and foot stands, a diving bell that dropped beneath the waves, and even a real Eskimo village.
Morris pushed the dollar bill to the woman sitting in the ticket booth. For fifty cents each, the wonders of the Steel Pier were now theirs.
By two o’clock they were exhausted, seated on the very end of the Pier, in the Ocean Arena. The water show had just ended with its amazing finale: a spectacular dive from a high platform into the open sea, performed by a scantily clad woman, astride a very large barebacked horse.
Sarah and Morris unwrapped their sandwiches and munched happily, as the arena stands emptied.
When they left the Pier, they continued walking South, this time along the beach, down at the edge where the sand was damp and hard-packed. The tide was beginning to rise and the saltwater foam was reaching higher and higher onto the beach. They stopped and took turns balancing one another in order to remove their shoes and stockings. From that point on, they walked, holding onto their shoes and, once or twice, touching hands.
They ran in and out of the shallows, dodging the approaching surf, and laughing. For a long stretch the beach was almost empty. Just a lonely bather or two; a man, his suit jacket off, sat on a blanket, peering through a large pair of binoculars; a few children looked for shells and chased tiny sand crabs.
And then, in the distance, Sarah saw it. They both saw it, stopped and simply stared at the elephant.
Prior to the story telling phase, and before her mind started to leave her body for parts unknown, Penrod would visit his mother, twice a year.
It wasn’t a trip he looked forward to since he hated Florida. The palm trees always looked half-dead and it depressed him. He also found it terrifying that so many cars appeared to be moving without the aid of drivers. Of course he knew there really were drivers –– age-shrunken men or women, enveloped inside massive Detroit sedans, hunched low and out of sight, save for liver spotted hands clutching a steering wheel. Penrod knew it was only time before one of them plowed into him.
However, it was the story-telling phase of his mother’s memory loss that uncovered an interesting, albeit contradictory phenomenon.
On one hand, she could recall the tiniest details of the most complex stories, which typically involved immediate family, distant relatives, long dead friends and half-century-old neighbors. The most arcane minutia seemed etched in her mind. She recalled, for example, the meal in a Chinese restaurant when Penrod was only six and his startled reaction to tasting hot mustard for the first time. Or what she wore that summer day in 1929 when her cousin Flora introduced her to the dapper young man who would become Penrod’s father.
Intricately detailed stories sprang from her fading memory, like flowers popping out from cracks in a pavement.
On the other hand, she couldn’t remember, from one minute to the next, when she’d last told a story. So she’d tell them again. And again. And again.
Gradually, and sadly, the endless repetition of those clearly remembered stories, was replaced by the total absence of memory.
To forget is one thing. Not to remember at all, is quite another.
The first blush of this loss surfaced during one of Penrod’s dreaded visits to Florida. He and his mother were sitting by the pool.
Bored with his reading material, Penrod casually asked his mother, “What year did uncle Sol die?” Sol, of course, was his mother’s brother, and one of the main characters in many of her stories, especially the numerous aunt-Molly stories, which she tended to recount ad nausea.
So Penrod assumed his query would trigger a fresh flow of story telling, and save them from sitting in awkward silence.
To Penrod’s surprise, his question was answered with a blank look from his mother. A look that clearly asked, “Who on earth is Sol?”
Penrod took a moment to recover. “Sol, mom. Your brother Sol. You remember. You know, like that time when he crawled through the window. Over aunt Molly…while she was sleeping?”
Penrod’s explanation only triggered a look of panic, and she finally said, “I think I must have forgotten that last night. I’m sure I knew it yesterday.”
She was never the same after that.
Penrod’s father was another story. His mind was like a steel trap. True, it was a badly rusting steel trap, but one that functioned fairly well, all things considered. He idolized Penrod, right up to and well past the point of worship. It was Penrod’s cross to bear.
Sarah had never seen anything like it: a gloriously gigantic elephant, towering over her and looking as big as a building, which in actual fact, it was.
Lucy the Elephant had been built in 1881 as a promotional gimmick to help sell beachfront real estate. In the years that followed Lucy had been used in various ways – as a hotel, a bar, an office — but its main attraction had always been as a splendid observation tower and magnetic tourist attraction.
The rhythmic sound of crashing waves pounded in her ears and the clean, briny smell of salt air filled her nostrils.
Sarah stood, arms wide in a child-like gesture of pure happiness, her white patent-leather shoes clutched in one hand. Her starched white sailor dress looking crisp and bright in the strong glare of mid-day sun. Sarah’s thick hair – its color the deepest shade of rust – fell to her shoulders and moved easily like a shiny wave in the strong, salted breeze.
She watched as the ocean rose in huge blue-green swells that rolled into waves, smashing against the shoreline and reaching out with thick foam fingers stretching toward dry sand. Hundreds of snow -white gulls seemed to fill the sky. Wings extended, they hung motionless on strong, invisible currents of air — occasionally folding back their wings to dive for food from the sea.
The packed sand in the shade of the elephant felt damp and cool to Sarah’s bare feet. Never in all her life had she felt this happy, this free and this alive.
“Would you like to go up inside? Morris asked. “I think there’s a charge… I…have…some money left,” he added with more than a touch of hesitation.
Before answering, Sarah took a few steps out from where they were standing, and shielding her eyes from the sun, gazed up at the sixty-five foot high structure.
Sarah desperately wanted to go to the very top, to stand in the Howdah on Lucy’s back and see the panoramic views. She also feared that the admission charge, on top of what Morris had already spent at The Steel Pier, would be more than he could afford and didn’t want to embarrass him, especially since, as Ida had pointed out, Morris Blinderman was most likely poor.
Penrod’s parents were both 93. When they were 92 he had sold their condominium and “decanted” them into an almost identical rental apartment in what’s commonly known as an Assisted Living Facility, called Palm Breeze.
His mother and father were bitter and upset about the change in living arrangements but would never say anything negative to Penrod because he was their prince and everything he did was always okay with them, even when it wasn’t.
Penrod suspected that in their heart of hearts they knew living alone at their age was out of the question. But change at that age comes hard. Dignity and ego and pride can sprout stubborn roots, not easily dislodged.
By now, his mother no longer had any memory left, although she was otherwise in reasonable health, with no real disabilities, save for a maddeningly slow, walker-assisted shuffle. Never a small person, with age she had grown even more petite. Age had not much diminished her lovely, clear skin and beautiful hands, which were kept perfectly manicured, thanks to the daytime caregiver Penrod had recently hired to see to their needs.
Unlike his mother, Penrod’s father, Harry, still possessed most of his marbles, but suffered with congestive heart failure and an embarrassingly nagging problem with continence. Penrod would joke, that by combining his parents, the two would have made a fairly effective whole person.
Morris Blinderman watched Sarah as she walked out from the cool shade under Lucy the elephant. There was no doubt in his mind that Sarah was the most beautiful girl that he’d ever seen. On one hand, he knew he had fallen deeply in love with her. In love, in that special way reserved exclusively for teen-age boys. On the other hand, he knew he had no money left and was filled with the fear that Sarah would want to explore the interior of Lucy the elephant. He thought he would die before he disappointed her.
Penrod’s plane landed at West Palm Beach. He headed his rental car South on I-95, pulled out his cell phone dialed his parents’ apartment. He was less than surprised when Mary, the caregiver – a Jamaican nurse’s aid – told Penrod that his father had fallen in the main dining room that morning and, to be on the safe side, had been taken to the hospital. Mary, it seemed, was just getting ready to drive Penrod’s mother to the hospital, to be at Harry’s side. Penrod had been there to see his father on other occasions and knew how to get there.
Harry was asleep when Penrod entered his room. His bed was cranked up so he was in an upright sitting position. An I.V. fed fluid to his arm. The little TV that hung silently from a ceiling bracket was tuned to one of daytime’s more notorious shock shows. The words super-imposed across the bottom of the screen read simply: Son Slept With Best Friend’s Father.
Penrod wasn’t at all surprised that he had arrived before his mother. Her slow shuffle to the car alone would take an excruciating half-hour. Penrod could have blown a tire, changed it, stopped to clean up, had a bite to eat, and still beaten them to the hospital.
Penrod stood at the foot of the hospital bed and studied his father who slept fitfully, the clear plastic fingers of an oxygen harness probing his nose. Harry’s body — at least the parts not covered with a thin sheet – showed evidence of his various falls. The fresh bruises were in various dark shades and combinations of black, blue, red yellow and purple. Others were in different stages of healing. One large one on his leg looked like a fading Continent of Africa. Another, a subtle reddish-purple, was a dead ringer for the receding bow of a sinking ship.
To be confronted by the physical evidence of his father’s frailty suddenly squeezed Penrod’s heart with such pain and sadness that he had to bite down hard on his lower lip to muffle a sob.
Just then Mary, the caregiver, wheeled Penrod’s mother into the room. “I hads to put her in a wheelchair, mister Penrod,” Mary said in her Jamaican lilt. “She be walkin’ so slow I tink we gits here after dey sens mister Harry home!”
Penrod greeted Mary, then leaned down, kissed and gently hugged the fragile old woman that was his mother. “Mom, you look wonderful,” he lied. “That’s a very smart dress you’re wearing.”
She looked up, smiled and said, “Do I know you?”
“Of course you do, I’m your son. You know. Penrod,” he said, smiling.
The old woman chuckled. “Get out! He’s my son,” she said, pointing to Harry sleeping in the bed.
“No, mom, I’m your son. That’s your husband. Harry. And he’s my father.
The old woman just smiled a delighted smile and said, “You’re my son and he’s my son. I must have two sons!”
Young Morris Blinderman’s deep thoughts were interrupted by Sarah’s voice, close enough to his ear to feel her breath. “Let’s stay here, in the shade, Morris. We don’t have to go to the top. Besides, I really don’t like high places.”
Without thinking – almost as if he were outside of his own body – Morris closed the short distance between them and kissed Sarah. She did not pull away. She dropped her shoes and they landed on the cool sand next to his.
It was a long albeit rather chaste kiss. A first kiss for both of them. Possibly a kiss to be remembered.
“Someday I will marry you,” Morris blurted out, close to tears, with emotion, and filled with sweet adolescent joy. “I swear Sarah, you will be my wife.”
The next morning, as scheduled, Morris Blinderman left Atlantic City. He and Sarah never again spoke, never exchanged correspondence, or ever laid eyes on one another.
“Penrod,” Harry said weakly. “When did you get here? I must have dozed off. How are you?”
“Fine, dad, I’m fine. Everyone is fine,” Penrod said, as he leaned down and kissed his father on the forehead. “What happened? How did you fall down?”
“Ach, I don’t know. I just fell. But you’re here. Nothing else matters. I live to see you,” Harry said, his eyes filling. “When you’re not here, every day is like yesterday and tomorrow is the same as today.”
Penrod dreaded that sentence and Harry said it all the time. It drove Penrod crazy. All he could think about was a fragment of the quote from Hamlet that he’d memorized for an English class in college. ‘…and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death…’ He normally would give his stock reply, “Look, dad, unless you do something about it, that’s probably true. So for Christ sake, do something about it!”
But the old man was flat on his back and defenseless in a hospital bed, so instead, Penrod changed the subject. “You know dad, mom thinks you’re her son.” Penrod’s mother, listening, just smiled.
Harry looked at his wife and lowered his voice. “Ach, your mother. Her marbles are gone. She’s got no marbles left, you know.”
Penrod didn’t reply. He stepped over to where he’d put his overnight bag and pulled out an envelope. “Mom, remember when I was here last time I found that big box of photos? Well I took the home and organized them for you.”
He pulled a chair up close to the wheelchair and removed a batch of snapshots.
“I’m going to put a few of these on the refrigerator so you can look at them. See, here’s one you’ll recognize. Do you know who this is?” Penrod held the photo so his mother could see it. She shook her head, “No, I never saw that person?” The caption Penrod had written in clear block letters on the bottom edge of the photo read: ‘YOUR BROTHER SOL’.”
Penrod tried another. Than another, and another. The favorite aunts, Molly, Doris, Bluma. Their golden retriever named Lox, who had been with them for a dozen years. His mother’s best friend and Ma Jong partner.
Not a single picture brought even a glimmer of recognition to his mother’s eyes.
And between each photograph, Harry would mutter –– a bit too loudly, “No marbles left. You’re wasting your time, Penrod. Trust me.” And Penrod, knowing it was true, still wanted to smack him for saying it.
The photographs finished, Penrod reached into the manila envelope and pulled out a worn, torn Postal Card. It was Scotch taped together. The address and message had both faded long ago.
The front of the card showed the muted tones of a hand colored photo of an elephant. Under the picture was a printed legend that read, ‘Lucy, The Pachyderm Palace.’
“Take a look at this mom. Do you remember this?” Penrod asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
Harry lifted slightly from his bed to see what Penrod was holding. “Penrod, forget it. She don’t remember nothing. Don’t torture yourself.”
Penrod’s mother studied the tattered piece of cardboard, then reached out and took it between her slender, immaculately manicured thumb and forefinger. A smile formed on her lips.
“Yes. The elephant. I was there with Morris Blinderman, when I was fifteen. We went to The Steel Pier and we ate cream cheese and jelly sandwiches –– where the horse dove into the water. We had such a good time. I wore a new, white dress and, and a blue bow in my hair. Morris kissed me. He said he loved me.”
Then, instead of handing the card back to Penrod, she pressed it to her frail bosom, smiling, her eyes focused on a thought very, very far away.
“I never saw him again.”
No one said a word. Somehow, from the rubble of his mother’s destroyed memory, a sole survivor had miraculously been found alive. Buried for almost eight decades, it was miraculously still breathing, despite the irreparable damage that so totally surrounded it.
Sarah, it seemed, did have one marble left.