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Cheeseburgers in the Rose RoomA NOVEL
By Jonathan York
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2009 Norman Stokle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEmily O'Neill and Sarah Williams emerged from the taxi onto the dimly lit sidewalk in front of Kruger Exhibition Hall. It was eight o' clock and the museum had been closed since six. From the trunk, the cabbie unloaded a canvas wheelchair, extended its chrome struts and set it down beside Sarah. Gently, he guided her onto the seat. "You sure this is the right place?" His friendly eyes scanned the building for some sign of life.
"Absolutely," said Em without a trace of hesitation.
The cabbie scratched his head in unconcealed perplexity. Transporting old ladies to shopping malls and social events was part of his stock in trade. He was accustomed to the foibles of the city's growing number of senior citizens and had mastered the art of humoring them. But now, in front of a somber and forbidding Kruger Exhibition Hall which seemed to hold some compelling interest for his two passengers, he felt out of his depth. "I'll wait ... to make sure you're all right," he volunteered, trying hard to disguise his uneasiness.
"No. That won't be necessary, thank you," said Em in a voice at once shrill and peremptory. "We'll be walking back. Both of us." Disregarding Sarah's hostile glance, she counted some small change into the cabbie's hand, dismissed him with a smile, then pivoted the chair with unusual force in a quarter circle toward the Hall's main entrance.
The departing taxi wafted gasoline fumes in Sarah's direction. She coughed and wiped the perspiration from her face. All the way across town, her entire body had protested with every turn, every stop light and joint in the pavement. It wasn't easy being old and having to wage a continuous battle against angina and an assortment of lesser ailments; it was even worse having to cope with her lunatic friend as well. She sank back into her chair, weighing in her mind the pros and cons of sustaining such a turbulent relationship.
"Don't worry about a thing, Sarah," said Em. Her tone of encouragement exuded an almost adolescent enthusiasm. "In no time at all, you'll be the woman you were thirty years ago. No more doctors, no more pills. Not after tonight."
Sarah shook her head, too exhausted to complain, and pondered the absurdity of her situation. Here she was, a sixty-six year old invalid, being dragged off in the dead of night to Kruger Exhibition Hall to see a ridiculous pile of rocks from Mars. And all because Em had spent her pension check on a bottle of sherry and allowed her penchant for fantasy once again to get the better of her. Before, it had been palmistry and vegetarian diets; then garlic mudpacks, and now, these pieces of debris brought back by the astronauts which she pronounced the key to good health. It was just one more madness to add to Em's long list of crazy causes and quack cures.
"Goddammit, Emily, you're outa your tree, you know that! You're even sicker than I am," hissed the enormous woman lurching from side to side as the wheelchair advanced slowly up the concrete path.
Em laid her hand on Sarah's well-padded shoulder. "It's for your own good, you'll see."
"I need this like a hole in the head," barked Sarah. "I ain't sittin' on no goddamn Mars rocks. Whoever heard of rocks curing anything?" Sarah's derisive protests revealed the hopelessness with which she viewed her condition. For years, her heart condition had defied the best efforts of her neighborhood homeopath and he had finally recommended surgery. But Sarah would hear none of it. "Them butchers ain't carvin' me up," she'd announced categorically and recalled the unhappy fate of her grade twelve classmate, Becky Johnson, who had failed to resuscitate after an operation for appendicitis. Rumor had it that the anaesthetist harbored an over-zealous penchant for drink. After what life had put her through, Sarah was in no mood to indulge the weaknesses of others. She had enough of her own, thank you very much. She had sought relief from reflexologists, herbalists, chiropodists, and at one point, even consulted a visiting faith-healer from Madras. But her condition worsened, she became an impulsive eater, added weight until the inevitable happened. A stroke left her partially paralyzed down her left side.
The doctors had cautioned Em to keep her stricken friend as quiet as possible. But the task had been far from easy, despite Em's forty years as a nurse's aide at Saint Joseph's hospital. Passivity had never been part of Sarah's exuberant nature. What she had in abundance was will-power and resilience. These had certainly come from raising her four younger brothers and sisters unaided, after her mother's untimely death in an altercation outside a downtown bar. Life had been unkind to Sarah. And now, regulated by pills and confined to her dreary two-room apartment in Sunnyvale Manor, she chaffed at her hopeless future: a lonely waiting for death at the mercy of a heart no longer strong enough to permit activity, nor weak enough to release her from boredom.
Yet now, Em was supremely confident about the outcome of their nocturnal visit to Kruger Hall. Her assurance was almost uncanny. It defied all the rules of elementary logic. The evidence, never the less, was there for all to see. The rocks had cured her arthritis.
* * * The soot-encrusted columns of Kruger Exhibition Hall loomed through the moon's pallid light. The gift of a local ordnance manufacturer after the First World War, it served both as a city museum and as the site for major touring exhibitions. In front of the neo-Gothic facade, manicured lawns and gardens surrounded a long rectangular pool stocked with goldfish and lilies. At its center, an equestrian bronze statue of E.J. Kruger towered over a musical fountain. An accompanying inscription announced the building's dedication to "the cause of universal peace, justice and enlightenment."
With uncustomary skill, Em pushed the heavy wheelchair before her, and recalled the many summer evenings she'd spent in the museum grounds with her late husband, Paul. They would listen to recorded concerts while watching the fish darting in the lights. But now, everything was gripped by an eerie stillness. Beyond the horseman's silhouette, hovering gargoyles broke the moonlight into grotesque animal shapes. Moving through the shadows, the women neared the carved oak doors, their progress punctuated by the rhythmical squeaking of Sarah's wheelchair.
In recent years, the two widows had often gone to the Hall together. The visits to the fairs and travelling shows had added some variety to their otherwise colorless lives. It wasn't so much the exhibits they'd enjoyed as the opportunity to compare notes with others of their own generation. There was something strangely comforting about seeing their own debilitations mirrored in those of their neighbors, or even their forgetfulness of names or expressions which a decade earlier they'd easily have remembered. Such perverse comparisons reassured them. Now, however, Em approached Kruger Hall as if for the first time. No longer simply a towering haven of culture filled with publishers' stalls, Tibetan art or the marvels of microtechnology, it had been transformed into a mysterious sanctuary containing the treasures of space which somehow radiated life.
Tense with anticipation, she took a flash-light from her purse and aimed its beam at the imposing double-doors. Then, stretching out her hand, she turned the polished knob. The doors remained firmly closed. "Just as I thought." She pushed her bifocals into place and ran her bony fingers over the wrought ironwork. "Looks like one of them heavy-duty locks," she murmured without any sign of discouragement.
"Of course it's a heavy-duty lock. It's a public building." Sarah sat up, seething with irritation. "Get me a taxi. This minute!" She adjusted her cushion, quickly assuming a haughty, regal squat.
"A public building," Em repeated. "Which means what's inside belongs to all of us, the rocks included." She looked sadly at the pitiful spectacle of her friend imprisoned in the padded wheelchair. How embittered she'd become in her stifling obesity, yet how envious of those with reasons to live. Sarah's sourness and negativism, Em recognized, were merely symptoms of her malady, a reflection of that earlier state from which she, herself, had only just escaped. It was the responsibility of the healthy to take care of the sick, and of friends to take care of each other.
The two women had been inseparable companions ever since Em's crisis five years previously when within the space of a year, she'd lost first her only child, Peter, then her husband. Peter's death, while on a secret mission in Pakistan had been the cruellest blow because so unexpected. And it had certainly hastened Paul's end. An engineer and union official on the railway, her husband had died of Parkinson's Disease after a protracted illness. Although advanced stem-cell treatments had been available in Kansas City, the costs had been far beyond their means. During Paul's last agonizing days, Sarah had remained constantly at his bedside, despite her own chronic ill-health, so that Em could continue with her job at Saint Joseph's. And after the funeral, when Em's only desire had been to end her own life as quickly as possible, it was Sarah who had given her the strength to go on. Now, it was Em's turn to stand by her friend and take the initiatives which were manifestly for her own good.
Moving Sarah's one hundred and ninety-five pound mass usually required the assistance of Jake Lucero, Sunnyvale Manor's general factotum. But now, Em's wiry arms twisted against the strain as she slowly pushed the invalid around the side of the building. The chair jolted over a frost-heave in the paving stones. Sarah winced with pain. Her hands gripped the chrome arm-rests like those of a juvenile on a roller- coaster. Tears of frustration welled in her eyes. The writhing mass balanced dangerously at the fulcrum. Then, it fell back against the cushions adding momentum to the rolling chair.
"You'll be thanking me by tomorrow," puffed Em. She tucked a mop of unruly grey hair back under her felt hat.
"Like hell, I will."
"Careful, Sarah, or you'll be having another attack."
"Damned rights! You'll be the death of me."
"I've found the way to new life." The unruly mop slipped down again over Em's deeply-sunken grey-blue eyes and was just as quickly thrust back again under the hat.
"You ain't found nothin' except the way to drain a bottle of sherry. Stop this madness." Sarah's cries seemed designed to attract outside help. The last thing Em wanted was to attract the attention of the night security guard or, worse still, the police. The bitter experiences of her husband during his time as a trade union organizer on the railroad had taught her that the police always behaved like S.S. storm troopers in situations that called for diplomacy and understanding. She knew they would waste no time in putting both Sarah and herself behind bars on whatever charge they could make stick.
"Hush, Sarah," Em cautioned. "If we can just get inside this place ... just get inside ... for a minute ... or two." Her perspiring body drawing on hidden reserves of energy, she jostled the chair across a patch of loose gravel and headed toward the back of the building.
Suddenly, Em's heart began to pound. In the shrubbery, no more than ten yards in front of her, she distinctly saw something move. Her hands tightened around the rubber chair handles, and in a whisper, she told Sarah to keep still. A year earlier, the dismembered body of a young girl had been dredged from the river close to Kruger Hall. The assailant had never been apprehended. Although the police had classified the strangulation as a sex crime, Em knew that people with sick minds were perfectly capable of raping older women, even those with angina or arthritis. And in their present predicament, they were highly vulnerable, to say the least.
Sarah was on the point of abandoning her chair in a bid to reach the main road when the howl of an impregnated cat issued from the bushes. The speedy expulsion of three more black and white tabbies from the foliage told the women they had disturbed the nightly gathering of the local feline clans.
"My nerves can't take this any more," growled Sarah. "Why don't we come back tomorrow?"
Em placed a hand on her companion's pudgy arm. "Tomorrow, they're shipping the rocks out west to Denver ... or, no. I think it's Tulsa. So, it's now or never. You stay right here."
"Where else am I gonna go, for God's sakes?"
"I'll scout around the back. There's got to be another way in." And without giving Sarah a chance to argue the matter further, Em disappeared from sight.
For what seemed an eternity, Sarah waited in the moonlight, slowly chilling to the bone and munching aggressively on a soft-centered chocolate she'd found in her coat pocket. The pain surged upwards unremittingly, and she wished for all the world she could be back home, curled up on the sofa, watching the Johnny Depp movie on HBO. Nevertheless, there was something about Em which made this escapade different from all the others. Her sudden iron determination, her litheness in manipulating the wheelchair, the way her legs responded to her desires - all pointed to an undeniable resurgence of youth. Em was seventy-one years old, her face wrinkled like a prune and beyond the help of even the most pulchrifying Avon cream, yet her body moved like that of a woman in her physical prime. The metamorphosis could hardly be explained by a bottle of sherry or a vial of pills. The wiry little woman seemed quite convinced she'd discovered the Fountain of Youth in the Mars rocks, and, at this point, Sarah decided she had nothing to lose but her pain and her wheelchair.
Em reappeared on the concrete pathway. A combined glow of sweat and triumph covered her face. "Door's open round the back," she said with the passion of a novice burglar scenting his first success. "We're gonna make it, Sarah." She pushed the wheelchair a few more yards, parked it behind a tree and pointed to a large skip at one end of the employees' parking lot where two janitors were disposing of the museum's daily trash.
"Takes them three minutes from the door 'till they've dumped their load of plastic bags," explained Em. "That's our window of opportunity. But you've got to keep your mouth shut."
When the two men had returned inside the building, Em quickly moved the wheelchair closer to the doorway, taking shelter behind a Ford pick-up truck.
"This is it, Sarah. Next time they come out ... Brace yourself." Laughing voices echoed through the service entrance as the two janitors rolled out another load of trash and crossed the parking lot all the while exchanging more colorful epithets about the salaries of their favorite basketball stars. As they reached the skip, Em mustered all her energy and without a word to Sarah pushed the chair through the open door into a long hallway. The women were in luck. The security post was momentarily unmanned. The guards had more interesting things to occupy their attention than routine surveillance. Or perhaps they were doubling as janitors in response to the mayor's well-publicised policy of streamlining public budgets. Whatever the case, Em interpreted their absence as a sign of divine approval for her initiative. Drawn by the power which had earlier quickened her body, she swivelled the wheelchair around the corner, through another set of doors and crossed the threshold into the vast sepulchral expanse of the main gallery. Sarah remained utterly silent as Em maneuvered her slowly past the dimly-lit images of astronaut heroes, models of satellites and space vehicles. Overhead, styrofoam planets in perfect proportions dangled from the vaulted ceiling. A spidery lunar module drifted by as the cortege inched its way toward a raised lucite case at the far end of the gallery.
Caught in a splinter of light, its precious contents seemed to glow even more intensely than before, as if in direct communication with the Beyond. Em stepped forward onto the dais.
"You dragged me down here just for this ... this pile of gravel?" Sarah's face clouded with disappointment.
Em tilted the chair onto the spherical dais and parked it beside the case. "Let the rocks do their work," she said simply. "You'll understand soon enough."
The dangerous illegality of their situation distressed Sarah almost as much as Em's mental aberration. Even as a child in the ghetto, she'd never found it necessary to flout the law. Never even wanted to. And now, her friend's newly-spawned relish for criminal activity only added to her nervousness. "Em, I'm too old for prison," she snorted. "Stick YOUR neck out if you want to, but not mine!"
Excerpted from Cheeseburgers in the Rose Room by Jonathan York Copyright © 2009 by Norman Stokle. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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