a short story by
Jean Foster Akin
“Bingo, Bingo, Bingo, Harold,” Gladys Pinsky sang unpleasantly.
She sat stiffly in the Cascade Blue, 1965 cruise-liner that Buick had originally christened The Le Sabre way back in ‘59. Gladys felt it resembled less a car than the QE Two. Where did the hood stop and the world begin?
Her clunky, black, sensible shoes were planted firmly on the clean rubber floor mat on the passenger’s side of the car, and her back was straight and imperious under her heavy grey coat. She gripped her black handbag in her lap as she waited impatiently for her husband to fasten his seatbelt. The wrinkles around her eyes deepened, and her brown eyes glittered as she watched him fiddle with his seat-back. Her lips were caked with an orangey-red lipstick that had worked its way into the lines of annoyance around her mouth. Even the flowers on her hat gave off a censorious air.
The big boat in which Gladys sat so stiffly was what Harold called proudly a “third generation Buick cream puff.” Harold Pinsky had been twenty-five years old when he docked the huge, blue, three-year old beauty in Gladys’s parents’ driveway in ’68 and honked the horn. His hair had been thick and glossy black, his dark eyes sparkling with the thrill of being alive, being young and virile and handsome, being the owner of a relatively new Buick, and the soon-to-be husband of the prettiest girl in town. He had no brown scabby spots on the top of a bald head back then, or bristly hair poking out of his ears and nostrils. No, he had been a fine-looking man, and when he honked his horn, Gladys had come a-runnin’—her blonde hair done up in a heavily sprayed bee-hive (with just a little golden curl artfully arranged in a coquettish fashion across her smooth forehead), her peasant skirt swirling around her white, knee-high, “go-go” boots. Her smile had been as dazzling as a billboard advertising Colgate toothpaste. And her laugh, oh her laugh filled his chest with bubbly excitement as she threw back her head, exposing the white gleam of her lovely throat.
But that was then. And this? Well, this was now.
Harold had bought more gas efficient cars after their first child had come, and as the size of their family increased, and soccer games and ballet classes and camping trips filled their schedule, rides taken in the Buick decreased. The blue behemoth slumbered uneasily in the garage, shrouded under a protective cover, taken out for a spin only rarely, but polished to a glossy patina every week by an ever-aging man whose eyes sparkled as he ran the chamois over the glassy finish.
As the years passed, as the children left for college or work in other parts of the country, his Gladys had become more critical of their lives together–especially when their grandchildren started popping up in every conceivable locale…except in Gladys’s neighborhood. It was as if, when the last of their children had left their home, that boy had absconded with the exuberance and playfulness of all his siblings and parents combined. Harold would look across the breakfast table in the mornings, his eyes as dull as pennies, and wonder who that stranger was, that disapproving old woman who had once been his Gladys. He found himself considering the benefits of running away to join the Circus. Problem was, he was seventy, and all he’d ever done was explain fixed-rate and adjustable rate mortgages to people who couldn’t afford either, and, more recently, fall asleep with spittle dripping from the side of his mouth in front of the evening news. No one would buy a ticket to see that.
“I told you that I wanted to get to the Bingo game in Cranston by six,” Gladys was saying now, as Harold turned off their street and headed for the highway exit. “I told you that Harold. I told you that several times.” They were insulated from the world by old soft vinyl, gleaming chrome trim, and the mild emerald glow of the dials on the Le Sabres’ expansive dash.
Harold sailed off the exit and entered the rush of the highway traffic. A semi-truck trundled along in the right lane. Harold buzzed passed it in the middle lane, other cars staying back to avoid being caught up in the LeSabre’s wild-wind vortex.
“I wanted to get a good seat by the cage,” Gladys carped. “That’s the thing. If I get there late I can’t get a good seat by the cage and see which balls are dropping. Seems to me that hussy Eleanor Bickle wins more than her share of games, and I think Bill’s making up calls—to help her out.”
“Hussy?” Harold asked, confused. “Eleanor Bickle?”
“What of it?” Gladys snapped.
“Eleanor Bickle is eighty-four and wears a hearing aid…”
“Bill’s a dog, Harold.”
“Bill’s ninety if he’s a day!” Harold said, incredulous, looking over at his wife for a second.
“Bill’s a dirty old man, Harold.”
Ahead, three semis blocked the lanes, one edging along slowly in the right lane, the second passing only a little faster in the middle, and the third thundering around the others via the left lane. Harold took his foot off the gas.
“Oh for the love of—!” Gladys exhaled on a sharp sigh. “We’ll never get there! Look at the time!” She looked down at her wrist watch. “It’s almost six now, and we’ve got at least twenty minutes to go in good traffic. If only you didn’t have to grab a rag and rub this dang car like a genie’s bottle every time you pull the sheet off it.”
Harold didn’t answer.
Gladys sniffled. “I wanted that framed Elvis, tonight, Harold, I really did.”
“Elvis?” Harold was confused again.
“Yes, Harold, I told you. You never listen. That’s your problem. I tell you the same thing, over and over, but do you listen? No, you don’t listen. Harold doesn’t listen. Harold doesn’t think he has to listen.”
Harold remained silent, listening.
“There’s a gorgeous framed painting of Elvis reserved for the winner of tonight’s raffle. Only players who win at Bingo can sign up for that raffle. Oh, it’s glorious! The King, displayed on black velvet, singing on a Vegas stage in that beautiful white body suit he liked to wear—with the sequins glittering on it? Stunning!” Gladys’s eyes gleamed in the sea green dashboard lights.
“But honey,” Harold said as delicately as he could. “You already have three framed paintings of Elvis.”
“You never liked Elvis!” Gladys hissed fiercely, as if he had just admitted that he’d been having an affair with Eleanor Bickle.
“Well, no, I’ve never been too fond of Elvis—he slurs all his words together when he sings—but still, even people who adore Elvis don’t need four framed paintings of him on their walls.”
“And if I can’t win that,” she said, ignoring his last remark. “I had my eye on the cat clock.”
“What are you, Harold? A parrot?” she asked, turning her cool gaze upon him. “Repeating everything I say? ‘Hussy? Elvis? Cat clock?’ What is it with you? Are you trying to drive me crazy?” Gladys was fairly shrieking now.
“Of course not, Gladys…” Harold said softly, trying to keep the volume of the conversation below sonic boom level.
Gladys cut him off. “So why is it you never seem to be listening, and then repeat whatever I say?”
“Well,” Harold responded reasonably, “if I wasn’t listening to what you said, I couldn’t very well repeat what—”
“Oh yes. Be didactic, Harold. Be didactic!”
The semi in the middle lane had moved on and Harold maneuvered the Buick between the two other trucks, inching along between them as they gradually dropped behind the Cascade Blue cream puff.
“The cat clock,” Gladys resumed, “is in the shape of a gorgeous black cat. The green eyes and the tail sweep back and forth with the seconds, and when the hour chimes, the jewels on the cat’s collar light up and flash, and the cat meows! So, for instance, at two o’clock the cat meows twice, ‘MEEE-OWWWW! MEEE-OWWWW!’” Gladys screeched at the windshield.
Harold jumped, but said nothing.
“And at nine o’clock—”
“I understand,” Harold interjected quickly.
“No need to be rude.” Gladys said primly, pursing her lips.
Harold thought of when those lips had been soft, but he didn’t take time to reminisce; instead, he said, “Dear, you have seven clocks in the house already. A frog clock that croaks on the hour, a macaw clock that flaps its wings—”
“I know what I have, Harold. I live there. Unfortunately.”
That last word stung him, but he pretended she hadn’t said it. “I’m just saying, dear…”
“Then there’s the wind-up salt and pepper shakers,” Gladys said, looking out her window into the dusk.
“The—” Harold began, then shut his mouth tightly.
“Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers. She’s the salt and he’s the pepper. When a guest asks for the salt and pepper, you wind up the shakers and they dance across the table! Isn’t that darling?”
“Oh, yes,” Harold said, though he didn’t see how it could possibly be darling to wait for two ceramic geegaws to hitch and wobble across a table while your mashed potatoes got cold.
“Anyway,” Gladys said, her smile fading, “I want something.”
Harold nodded in the otherworldly glimmer of the dash.
“I want something I can have,” she said to her window.
“Excuse me?” Harold glanced in her direction and saw her chin trembling. “Gladys?”
She said nothing and he watched her swallow back tears. He was now officially alarmed.
“Gladys? Are you all right?” He made a wide arc around a camper but kept sending her nervous glances.
“I’m old, Harold,” she gasped finally. “Old and useless. My hair’s dry, my skin’s sagging, and things creak when I move. I don’t know when it happened. I was young and beautiful just yesterday, and now…”
She snapped open her purse and pulled out a tissue, running it under both eyes. “It’s only you and me rattling around that old house now,” she whimpered. “I don’t know who I am anymore. Once the kids started leaving, I knew it was the end. I knew that soon my life would have no purpose. I just want something I can have—the Elvis painting, the cat clock, Fred and Ginger.” She gulped again. “Because I can’t have my youth back. I can’t have my kids back. I can’t have my happiness back.”
Harold’s chest felt heavy with pity for her. “Aww, honey,” he said gently. “We all have to adjust to getting older—”
“You don’t understand!” she wailed. “I see how you look at this old car! You look at it like you want to go back in time—to a younger wife, to a younger you. I can’t be that young anymore. I can’t be what the television and magazines tell me I’m supposed to be at sixty-eight! ‘Seventy is the new fifty,’ they say! Old women go to gyms and lift weights and wear Spandex, Harold! How can I compete with some sexy fifty-year-old woman?” She slapped her hands to her face and began weeping bitterly.
An enormous thought exploded in Harold’s mind then. The thought was so overwhelming in its clarity, so blinding in its brightness, he was forced to edge the car to the shoulder and park. He snapped on the hazards without conscious thought.
When Gladys’s sobs turned to sniffles, Harold spoke into the quiet.
“Honey, I think I’ve been feeling the same way. I didn’t realize it until now, but I think the reason I spend so much time mooning over this old car is because I feel like I left the best of me back in 1968.”
She didn’t answer, but dabbed at her nose and looked over at him in surprise.
“I’m wrinkled and flabby and I know it,” he went on. “I have hair growing out of places I didn’t know hair could grow out of. I used to be able to control my farts—” he looked at her helplessly. “I can’t control my farts anymore, Gladys!”
This last admission made Gladys burst out laughing, and suddenly her face was the face of that twenty-two year old girl in white go-go boots.
“I love you, sweetheart,” Harold said, reaching his age-spotted hand towards her and resting it firmly on her knee. “I have loved you for forty-five years. I don’t want to trade you in on a younger model. Forget the lies the television commercials try to tell you. I want nothing else but to live the rest of my life with you and to see that smile again—because when you smile, Gladys, you still light up the room for me.”
Gladys’s eyes glistened with her tears, and she squeezed the hand he’d placed upon her knee.
“And something else, too,” Harold said. “We’re not that old. Why can’t we start doing things that make us feel alive? So the kids aren’t nearby—why not find some other kids in between holidays?” Harold’s dark eyes flashed for the first time in a long time. “We could be grandparents to a whole bunch of kids! I could show some young boys how to take good care of an automobile. You could show some little girls how to garden or make cookies…”
“We could,” Gladys said, becoming inspired. “And we could learn to ballroom dance. We always wanted to learn, but when the kids were home we didn’t have the time or the money…”
“Gladys, honey, I would love to learn how to ballroom dance with you.”
They sat in companionable silence while cars and trucks rattled along in the world outside. “You have to get out of these stodgy old-lady shoes, though,” he said suddenly. “And that hat—that hat needs to go.”
She laughed again. “Hey, why don’t we stop at the diner?” Her eyes were bright as she looked at him. “Forget Bingo. We’ll get a slice of pie. We left the house so soon after supper that you didn’t get a chance to have something sweet.”
“I got something sweet right here,” Harold said with a hairy growl, and slipped his hand farther up her leg.
She giggled like a teen and slapped his hand playfully; then she gripped his hand as if she would never let go.
When they pushed through the door of the diner, hand-in-hand, customers looked up from their meatloaf specials and grinned at the two lovers, some of them thinking they’d never seen such young people in old-peoples’ clothes.