Getting Old Is Murder
By Rita Lakin
Random House Rita Lakin
All right reserved. ISBN: 044033568X
Gladdy Gets Going
Hello. Let me introduce myself. I'm Gladdy Gold. Actually, Gladys. I'm a self-proclaimed P.I. That's right, a private eye. Operating out of Fort Lauderdale. When did I get into the P.I. biz? As we speak. My credentials? More than thirty years of reading mysteries. Miss Marple and Miss Silver are my heroines.
In case you were expecting someone like what's-her-name with her "A" is for this, "B" is for that-you know who I mean, working her way all the way to Z-well, that's not me. I'll be lucky if I make it to the end of this book. After all, I am seventy-five.
You think seventy-five is old? Maybe, if you're twenty, it's ancient, but if you're fifty, it doesn't seem as old as it used to. And if you're ninety, well, seventy-five seems like a kid. You ought to see those spry ninety-year-old alter kuckers trying to hit on me for a date. When I look in the mirror, I don't see that older, faded, wrinkled stranger who barely resembles someone I once knew. I see a gangly, pretty, eager seventeen-year-old, marvelously alert and alive with glistening brown hair and hazel eyes.
Did you know that when you get older, and the brain cells start to turn on you, the nouns are the first to go?
For example, "what's-her-name" I just threw at you. I meant Sue Grafton, and this time it only took about two minutes for my brain synapses to make the connection and pull her name out of the cobwebs of my mind. Sometimes it takes days. All the while, it was on the tip of my tongue. My poor tongue must be exhausted from all the information I keep stored there.
Hey, you young ones-laugh. Wait 'til you get to be my age. Then the laugh will be on you. You'll ask the same questions we all ask: Where did the years go? How did they go by so fast? And even worse-where did all the money go?
Enough with all the philosophy. The question for now is how did I get into this private-eye racket? Before I retired, I was a librarian, so if you say this is a strange career move, I would certainly agree.
I was minding my own business in Lanai Gardens, Phase Two, building Q, apartment 317 on West Oakland Park Boulevard, Lauderdale Lakes, when a few of my neighbors died suddenly. Considering that the youngest of us is seventy-one and the oldest eighty-six, this is not something unexpected. I mean, everybody is on the checkout line. For example, we used to have five tables of canasta: now we're down to one. The Men's Sports Club used to fill four cars on Sunday for their trip out to Hialeah: now the only members left are Irving Weiss and his pal, Sol, from Phase Three. Even the nags that broke the guys' wallets have gone to thoroughbred heaven.
As I started to say-I was beginning to suspect foul play.
I am convinced that these deaths to which I am referring are not natural. There is a killer stalking Lanai Gardens. Nobody believes me, certainly not the police, but I intend to prove it. But first you need to meet the rest of the gang.
It's seven a.m. on a beautiful, very typical Friday morning in paradise. As usual I wake up a minute before the alarm goes off. I start my coffee perking-a vice I will not give up. I take out my one slice of whole wheat bread, pop it in the toaster. Get out my one teaspoon of sugar and my one-percent low-fat milk and I am ready to "seize the day."
I allow myself twenty minutes to work on the unfinished Sunday crossword that never leaves my kitchen table. I used to do the puzzle, in ink, on the morning it arrived. Now, it can take as long as a week to dredge up answers from my disobedient brain. Frustrating, but you do not give up anything that affords you pleasure at this time in life.
Lanai Gardens is situated in one of the many sprawling apartment complexes in this part of southeast Florida. A lot of people think of Fort Lauderdale as this ritzy community on the water, or the place made famous by all those college kids who take their clothes off on Spring Break-but that's not where we live.
Our condo isn't fancy, but it's pretty nice with its peach stucco buildings (just beginning to peel), swaying palm trees (look out for the falling coconuts), well-tended lawns (when the gardener shows up), pools and Jacuzzis, shuffleboard courts, duck ponds (watch your step!), and recreation rooms.
Now, into a pair of sweats, and I'm ready to begin the morning workout, such as it is. It's eight a.m. and my fellow residents are coming to life.
We used to go to the air-conditioned malls for our morning stroll, but not after reading those articles in the newspapers about older women being killed. Now we've decided to exercise at home. Exercise? Fast walking, slow walking, shuffling, barely moving at all; whatever the body will endure.
I'm the first one out on the third-floor walkway to warm up. And that's the signal for all the others to rush out.
My sister, Evvie Markowitz, is always the next one out. While I am in the Q building (Q for Quinsana), she lives across the way in apartment 215 in P building (P for Petunia. The builders were big on flowers). She refers to herself as my kid sister. Seventy-three to my seventy-five. We don't look anything like each other. I am taller. She is heavier. (We're both shorter than we used to be.) Before we turned gray, she was a redhead; I, a brunette. I was the scholarly one; she the dynamic, dramatic one. I was the plain one; she was the beauty. This dictum came down from our well-meaning but unsophisticated immigrant mother who didn't understand what damage such labels could cause. It set the course for both our lives. We never really became friends until I moved down here.
Evvie starts her own warm-ups. She always says the same thing every morning, calling out to me over the tops of the cars parked between our buildings. "Glad, how did you sleep?"
"Pretty good," I call back.
"I only had to get up three times last night," she says.
"Don't complain. Five times for me!" This from Ida Franz, our whirling dervish, who pops out of apartment 319 in my building and fairly leaps into pace with me. Ida is seventy-one, with a body that's compact and wiry. Her salt-and-pepper hair is always in a tight bun which threatens to pull her face off her head. Her back is ramrod straight, which Evvie says is so she won't drop the chip on each shoulder. "And the last time was at three a.m. It didn't pay to go back to bed after that."
"So what did you do?" Evvie calls out from across the way, knowing full well what Ida will say.
"I called my son in L.A. He's still up at midnight."
Evvie makes a familiar disgusted gesture, flapping her arms. We are all used to Ida trying to make her children love her, a lost cause. She's the one who calls them; they never call her. And because her children make her crazy, Ida makes us crazy.
I hear what I hear every morning: Sophie, calling from her kitchen window. "Yoo-hoo, I'm coming. I'm coming. Wait for me!" Trust me. She'll be last one out.
Routine is very important to us. Ida, the perpetual wet blanket, says it's because we're all in our second childhood. Except for Sophie, who she insists never grew out of her first one.
Now the door to apartment 216 opens across the way in Evvie's building. Bella Fox, who is eighty-three, gingerly steps out.
"Good morning," she whispers.
The girls call Bella "the shadow" because she's forever trailing one step behind us. We are always afraid of losing her, because she is so forgettable. She's tiny, not even five feet, and she wears pale colors that add to her seeming invisibility. But I'm on to Bella. She may seem shy, but in her own timid little way she's not afraid to speak her piece. She says what she wants and she gets what she wants. "Hi, gang! Your personal trainer is here! Everybody ready?" This is from Francie Charles, calling up to us as she rounds the corner from her building.
Her arrival is the signal for all of us to go downstairs and meet on the ground floor. Then we walk together along a shady path that winds around the building.
Francie, who will be seventy-eight tomorrow, was a real beauty when she was young. Tall, elegant, and classy, a model in her younger New York days, she is still beautiful. She's our real athlete, the one who got us all started in this somewhat anemic form of exercise. "Something is better than nothing," she is always telling us. She is also our health nut, lecturing on the right way to eat, although no one really can, or wants to, change the bad habits of a lifetime. Francie's only weakness is advertised by her favorite sweatshirt, "Death by Chocolate," given to her by her adoring grandchildren. She is wearing it today.
"How is everyone?" she chirps. "Isn't it a glorious day? Aren't we all glad to be alive!" As grumpy as Ida is, that's how cheerful Francie is. The perpetual optimist. She makes every day a gift. If it wasn't for Francie, I'd have left Florida years ago.
Bella begins taking slow, mincing steps-her version of exercise-along the path, apologizing every time anyone passes her.
"Stop apologizing for living," Evvie is constantly telling her. But Bella, who is fairly deaf, either doesn't hear or chooses not to. We all love her, but she doesn't believe it.
We walk and talk. With plenty to say, as if we don't see one another every single day and night. Not to mention phoning one another a dozen or more times a day.
Our half-hour workout is just about over when Sophie Meyerbeer, our roly-poly eighty-year-old, finally steps out of the elevator, bandbox-perfect in her pink, color-coordinated, extra-tight jogging ensemble. Pink sweats, pink sneakers with matching pom-poms, and a pink flowered sun hat. I might mention that this month's hairdo is also pink. Champagne Pink.
When she finally catches up to us, Ida mock-applauds her arrival. "So happy you could make it, Princess."
Clueless, Sophie takes her sarcasm as a compliment. Being incapable of spontaneity, Sophie has to get all dressed up, including makeup (fahputzed, Evvie calls it), before she'll walk out her door. Her third husband, Stanley, who made a fortune in notions and novelties, spoiled her rotten. He babied her, never let her lift a finger. Insisted she dress like a Kewpie doll for him. (Boy, did we speculate on their sex life!) He left her well-off and impossible.
"We're just about finished," says Ida, cooling down by walking slower.
"Oh," Sophie says, pouting girlishly. "Well, I couldn't help it. I didn't sleep a wink last night. I had such a terrible nightmare."
Bella stops, glad for any excuse not to move. "Ooh, tell us." She sits down on a bench, fanning herself.
Sophie shudders. "I dreamed I had a heart attack!"
Bella gasps, fluttering her hands nervously. "Oy . . . just like Selma."
"Change the subject," Ida snaps. She is never comfortable talking about death.
"No, it's my dream," Sophie insists.
"Just because Selma had a heart attack doesn't mean you will," Francie says gently as she continues her stretches.
Evvie adds judgmentally, "Besides, she was overweight and never exercised."
"Yeah," Ida adds with a satisfied smirk, "she and her pal Tessie were both thrown out of Weight Watchers."
"Maybe something caused that heart attack," I say. "For example, you know how Selma waxed those floors?"
"Yeah," Sophie chirps, "you coulda gone ice skating on them."
"Maybe she slipped and fell. Or maybe something frightened her . . ." I continue.
"She was so scared of spiders," Bella chimes in, happy to be able to contribute. "Remember that time she fainted when a teensie one crawled on her chair . . . ?"
Ida puts her hands on her hips defiantly and glares at me. "So? Dead is dead. What difference does it make?"
"The point is nobody bothered to investigate," I say. "Nobody cared to find out what really happened. Maybe if she hadn't been alone, maybe if Tessie hadn't had company that weekend, maybe she wouldn't have died."
This gives everyone pause.
Ida's had enough, and starts for the elevator. "Well, I'm going to get my bathing suit on."
"Good idea," I say, sorry I even brought it up. What's the point in depressing them?
Francie puts a reassuring arm around me. "Hey, Ida called it." Mimicking her: "Dead is dead." She giggles and I join in.
The group disbands, each to her own building, to get ready for part two of the morning routine-the pool.
Just as I'm ready to walk out the door and head for the pool, I look at the phone, count to three, and-it rings. I pick it up and say, "Yes, Sophie."
"Are we going to the pool?"
"Can I walk down with you?"
"Only if you're ready."
"Well . . . I'll just be a minute."
Knowing Sophie's minute, I tell her as I always do, "I'll start down. You can catch up to me."
I hang up, but stay by the phone. I know my customers. It rings again. My daily double. "Yes, Bella," I say as I pick up.
"Are we going to Publix today?" she asks.
"We usually go shopping on Friday."
"Is it Friday?"
"Yes, dear. Now go knock on Evvie's door and she'll walk you down to the pool. Don't forget your towel."
The phones. Umbilical cords. Lifelines. To keep connected. To counteract loneliness. God bless Bell South.
I walk down the three flights instead of taking the elevator, another small attempt to keep fit, and join the parade heading for the pool. Everyone's in bathing suits, sun hats, and thongs (not the kind worn by the young girls at Miami Beach, but the ones which adorn wrinkled feet) and carrying towels and small beach bags. Swimming time is also early in the morning-before it gets too hot to sit around the pool.
Francie is in the parking area chatting with Denny Ryan as he rakes up fallen palm fronds. He is a big six-footer, in his early forties, but you'd hardly know it. Perhaps being slightly slow-witted has kept him childlike. His mother, Maureen, died suddenly about seven years ago. Maybe it's cruel to say it, but he's better off. Even though she was his sole support and caretaker, she was a harridan. But there is a real sweetness to Denny, and we try to add to his small allowance from Social Security by giving him odd jobs around our apartments. He can and does fix everything.
Excerpted from Getting Old Is Murder by Rita Lakin
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