Joe Ashby Porter

From The Near Future (2006, Turtle Point Press)

The story opens in late January before dawn, in Manatee, Florida, a Gulf coast retirement village. Fog has drifted through grass and across pavement and spilled onto the pool. Most of the mobile homes rest dark and quiet on ornamental cinderblocks. At the blue trailer on Dockside Lane, however, Vincent Margiotta, seventy-nine, six two, one forty, with a lighted flashlight prods lawnmower parts behind his shed. Should the noise wake the Runkles next door, no skin off Vince. He and Lillian had lived here five years already, together then, before the Runkles moved into their white doublewide.

Like a heron Vince reads the jumble and fishes out a lawnmower blade that might do for Lillian's mower. The doors of his pickup read, " Odd Jobs," with his name and phone, and he had the legend printed on business cards last month. Tinkering and repairs mostly, and he'll gladly lend this sort of hand today to Lillian who has moved out and left him in the lurch. Never mind if she won't have any of the other assistance Vince provides for Manatee widows and wives and spinsters. Never mind, he thinks, old Lil may yet come to her senses. Vince lodges the flashlight between his thighs, points a finger into the beam, and balances the blade across it.

Sightlines cross the dark from Vince to a window in the whitish hump starting to loom above its picket fence. The lines run through screen wire and glass and past a perfumed finger that has lifted a cream vinyl slat.

" Tsk." Gwendolyn Runkle lets the slat snap shut and interlaces her fingers under her chin. " Mr. Margiotta, of course." Gwen rotates and glides across plush in the thinning dark toward the queen-size bed where Brent Runkle sits. Silent fragrance lubricates Gwen's hems and her scuffs, they too of a heavy ivory satin. " You may need to speak to him, or we might bring the matter before the village council. He's more thoughtless than ever since Lillian left him."

As Gwen passes the cherry grandmother clock she and Brent have reconditioned it begins pealing six with a triple-chime Whittington melody, and other soft chimes and cuckoos sound through the doublewide. " Suppose we had taken him for a prowler. Yesterday at Hair Now I heard about two break-ins in December, in deluxes. No hope of recovery. The officers said the virtuals and games were probably already plugged in in Micronesia. Oh dear heaven, I don't like to complain, but. . . ." Gwen pauses at her vanity for a squirt of lotion.

Brent can almost see his wife slide toward the bed. " I understand, dear. I have a good fix on what you mean, in many ways. But all the same, you know?" Brent's forearms in striped pajama sleeves rest on the sheet.

Creaming her elbows, Gwen continues. " Sometimes I still wonder whether we shouldn't have stayed on in Memphis. Even after. . . ." Gwen's eyes and Brent's wheel toward the far wall, where in a cypress frame hangs a veiled photograph of their estranged daughter at her Austin Peay graduation.

Brent shrugs. " We'll never have that one scoped."

" It's only that . . ."

Brent nods. " We've always dreamed of twilight years as a reward for our service, mine to retail shoes, yours to Drug War Mothers, all your tireless devotion and hindsight." Four eyes again wheel toward the far wall. Brent ahems. " What's done is done, though, and we mustn't let nostalgia overtake us. Might just as well mourn the internet meltdown. I'll put a bug in Margiotta's ear. So be a good girl and tell me what today is."

Gwen slips in beside Brent. " This," she whispers, " is the first day of the rest of our lives." From the powder room trills a last Tyrolean woodnote. Silent in their wide bed, hands clasped under the sheet, the Runkles take heart. Across the wheat shag carpet, the blonde and pastel settee in its polyethylene slipcover, the quilted control panels, the vintage cell phone on its tasseled cushion, and across the Runkles, light increases by insensible degrees, relentlessly.

While Lillian Margiotta's ex whets a blade, swaddles it in the army blanket in the bed of his pickup, climbs in and backs across rosy puddles, two miles away Lillian wakes. After a pit stop during which she winds her silver and black pigtail into a bun and blackens her eyelids, she shuffles to her tiny kitchen, her smallest since her and Vince's first lower east side one in fifty-two, smaller even than the one she left Vince with three months ago.

Lillian's new trailer is in fact a miniature version of Vince's, and Lillian likes that fine. Less to sweep and dust. Furthermore, at seventy-two it seems right for each new home to be smaller than the one before, in an orderly progress to the smallest. Elbows on skank Formica, Lillian sips Medaglia d'Oro like absinthe and hears Vince's pickup grind around the corner to a stop.

Lillian likes Manatee, no reason leaving Vince should make her leave the village. She had her eye on this trailer from the first and when its owner left to meet his maker, Lillian pounced. Back from the realtor with the contract in her ostrich clutch, amethysts on to celebrate, Lillian called it quits with Vince and hasn't lost a wink of sleep over it since.

Rattle rattle at the door. I mean, this isn't some Brooklyn tenement like the one Vince grew up in before doorbells were invented, garbage in the street and laundry out back, wop undershirts. Cool his heels if he can't act civilized. Lillian opens the cub refrigerator. The doorbell's a small thing, you might say, except you spend decades trying with zero success to teach a man to use one--and a cabby if anybody should know how to summon someone correctly, and he can push elevator buttons, can't he?

Or these bread-and-butter pickles. Lillian lifts out the squat Vlasic jar and nudges the fridge door shut. She sets the jar on the table in front of her and tries the top. No dice, but Vince is not what's needed. He's no Joe Palooka anymore.

Lillian opens the table drawer and takes out an instrument designed for these eventualities. She grips the jar between her knees, attaches the Jar Jif and breaks the seal with no sweat. Her mouth starts to water. She extends her tongue and lays one tart sweet wafer on it. Vince wants sours and so for fifty years Lillian has eaten bread-and-butters only at weddings and wakes. Now she can buy them for herself. Another small thing, but at seventy-two you don't hold your breath for biggies.

Rattle rattle. " It's me, Lil, open up in there. You still with us?"

" Hold your horses," shouts Lillian. Pickles capped and back in the fridge, she strolls to the front door.

After a moment Vince says, " I found your mower a blade." He bounces it on his palm.

" Okay." The sky seems huge, with the fresh Gulf breeze and the neighboring trailers set back from Lillian's. No planes, no boats, freeway barely audible. " Okay, thanks, Vince. I'd forgotten." Grass bends in waves from the lilac bougainvillea to the street. " You want a coffee?"

" Sure. Then I'll put the blade on, and the lawn should be dry enough for me to mow."

" So come in then. Don't bump your head. I'll make another pot."

" You don't have any more of those anise biscotti?" says Vince in the kitchen, legs stretched into the dining-living area. " You know, Lil, I was thinking. How about if you came back on a trial basis. One day at a time, no big commitment. Know what?"

" What's that?"

" How's about you pack an overnight bag while I cut your grass. You won't regret it. I've even arranged a nice surprise for you today. Have a heart, Lil." Somewhere outside a dog arfs. The Margiottas sip from the everyday demitasses and regard one another. Vince clears his throat. " In all the years, Lil, I don't think I ever told you about the first picture I fell in love with. Who knows why she was on aunt Cecilia's wall but there she was, black eyes and eyebrows, in a white peignoir, wringing her hands, hair loose."

" Why'd you flip?"

" Search me. Aunt Cecilia's eyebrows were darker, thicker anyway, and her bosoms had more character whenever I got a glimpse."

" Maybe the hands?"

" Nahh. But did I ever tell you, Lil, when I first saw you at that dance I says, 'A tragedienne'? Because you had the same Duse eyes as that photo. Still have."

" Okay, Vinnie. You were the cat's meow too, but give us a break."

" Steady there. A girl of a certain age shouldn't turn up her nose at compliments." Vince tosses back the last of his coffee.

Lillian drains hers. " Burn in hell. Did you go for your dental check-up?"

" You yours?"

Lillian nods: run of the mill, no particular horrors this time.

" Same here," says Vince. " He hadn't heard we'd split. So is it a deal? I'll give you the keys to the pickup in case you change your mind. One day at a time. Say," he says, swinging open the little refrigerator door, " what kind of pickles are you stocking now?"

Lillian shakes her head. " I always coveted those in the supermarkets. I put up with what I thought were the facts of life, all those years."

" They're embalmed in sugar. You might as well eat candy."

" See? That's the point. If I preferred candy that's what I'd damn well be buying. These are our waning years. I've thought about it and I plan to enjoy some things. I hadn't realized how expensive they are though, pickles, for what they are."

" So pamper yourself, but there are bigger questions. Also, you pamper yourself too long you'll be dead."

Lillian shakes her head again. " So what if I'm dead. I will be, whatever."

Vince sighs. " Lil, the unexamined life is not worth living."

She snorts. " You're quoting again. Holy mother of god, it sounds stupid too. Manzoni, Shakespeare, I don't care who it was. Not worth living? Get outta here."

Vince changes tack. " Heard from either of our girls lately? Listen, scoot your tail back where it belongs, and neither of them will learn how their mother misplaced the meaning of the word 'helpmeet.'" He rises. " I'm taking care of the lawn now. But do yourself a favor, Lil. Today's auspicious. Come on back, you'll be sorry if you don't."

Lillian looks down at her naked hands on the Formica. " Sorry is my middle name."

In a journey that began the day before, Denise Passaro and Tink Quinn plunge through Carolina, Georgia, and northwest Florida, alternating at the wheel. For both young Baltimoreans this is easily the longest journey yet taken. They pass roadblocks and prowling marauders, untouched by peril and not even altogether aware of it, they have so much to thresh out themselves. After ten months in an east Baltimore walkup neither is at all sure whether the cohabitation will continue, or should, or what the other might think about the matter.

Denise's low brow and thick dark eyebrows come from her mother who still scrapes by in a Baltimore confectionery selling junk text and tobacco to children. Denise's freckles and slight frame come from a father who surfaced to engender her before disappearing back into the underclass. Burly Tink's freckles come from his mother, and both his parents have long since vanished.

Tink is driving the last stint of today's leg, elbow out the open window. The orange coupe weaves through moderate traffic like a princess, wiggling her tailpipes at larger darker sedans with smoked glass and satellite links, wolves cruising three miles under the limit except when they're in a hurry. Denise navigates, a map open on her lap. Humming along with the radio's drifting salsa, she waves to road gangs and the occasional hitchhiker. Denise is pleased with the Hawaiian Bermudas and shirts and the flip-flops she has bought Tink and herself for their midwinter whee in the sunshine state. She found them and the sunscreen and the colored mirror shades, hers peacock, his bronze, in a Baltimore thrift store.

" Look there." Tink points with a pinky. The bridge seems to be crossing a salt marsh, with remains of an earlier parallel bridge visible above the water. On pilings perch dark fowl with hanging wings.

" Anhingas," says Denise. " What did we read, prehistoric, or they don't exactly fly?"

" Something like that, babe."

Bumpety bump bumpety bump over expansion joints and now a shush and splat between palms and motels. " Tink?" says Denise. " Are you glad Christmas is over? I am." She rubs a fingertip forward on the map. " I'm primed to get down to business. Even if some fun's in the cards too. I'm ready to rock and roll, and I don't see how this angle can lose. Dudes down here must like a fast buck, and we're talking serious venture capital."

" Serious as it gets."

" Right. I mean, venture capital's what keeps the whole enchilada afloat from here on."

" And above ground."

" Check. So, Tink, it looks to me like we've got it made in the shade. We have a package that what's-his-name looking for the fountain . . ."

" Corleone."

Denise nods. " He would have said forget the fountain. Who needs it if you can have untold wealth? If you've struck a gusher."

Tink steers thoughtfully. " But why give up youth if we're talking druthers? And let's don't forget love." Tink wiggles eyebrows.

" Okay," says Denise. " Well, is there a love fountain down here too, I hope?"

Tink grins. " Gusher."

Denise's eyes mist. " Maybe they're sentries, those anhingas, that let pass only the pure in heart." She peruses the map. " This exit."

Tink peels off onto the ramp. " Wait, is this what we've come to Florida's backside for? What's the place called again?"

" Manatee. Population thirty thousand. Trust me, Tink."

Brent and Gwen Runkle have converted their mudroom into a hobby center. Noon finds Brent at the workbench equipped with outlets for wood-burning styli, buffers and grinders, and other tools used mainly by Gwen when she devises clock bodies, and equipped with the powerful light necessary for the work Brent is now engaged in, whistling with a merengue he hears over headphones, in one eye a watchmaker's loupe through which he can almost see the lubricant grains that coat gears and hands, wafer batteries and solar cells, tweezers and velvet.

Clock-making has edged out Brent's and Gwen's other hobbies through the years since the rupture with their daughter and her departure for parts unknown like a thief in the night from their Memphis hideaway, her camper stuffed not only with her own belongings but also with such treasures from the Memphis family hobby center as Gwen's semiprecious stones and smithy and Brent's chemistry set. Clock-making fills the gap left by hobbies it would be heartbreaking to resume.

Today Brent devotes himself to a genuine conversation piece, a clock that runs backward. It will hang in the doublewide's entryway where it will be legible in the ormolu mirror opposite. Hanging the new clock will necessitate moving photographs of pets from happier times, probably to the powder room where Miau-miau and Cuddles can somersault over the porthole.

Brent is almost as short as his wife, and he can't help occasionally supposing that his name inhibited growth in the years when buddies with other names shot past him. As a teenager he took his share of ribbing about size but that didn't stop him from lettering in diving. Nor was Brent's size any problem with Gwen Ferby, far from the least popular girl in their class. At the prom, as they foxtrotted with a verve denied even the most adept of larger classmates, Brent proposed and Gwen accepted. She wrote him every day of the eighteen months he spent in Korea, letters that now nestle in camphor-soaked silk. They married the week of his return and the next week he embarked on a successful career as a retail shoe salesman.

Brent's part of the clock-making enterprise is the most essential and also the simplest. He positions the bushing in the face, mounts hands on the shaft, and inserts a battery in the quartz movement, whereupon the clock begins telling time. Brent then sets it to the U.S. atomic clock via satellite. Gwen in her turn will install the clock and bezel.

Brent sets in the concave glass, and almost immediately feels a caress on his dry neck. He pops out the loupe and turns to see Gwen with a tray of gleaming canapes. " I thought we might lunch on the veranda. The weather is adorable." At the back of Gwen's head in a net snood swings a dollop of hair colored like jar mayonnaise and as lustrous. This afternoon in a simulcast she will represent Manatee in a teleconference of Tampa Bay concerned citizens, and she has donned a taupe jumpsuit with a flattering peplum for the occasion. Brent will swim laps, as he does three afternoons a week.

Now through the trailer a musical clamor tolls noon.

" Strangers," says Gwen, glancing under a frilly valence. " Young ones. Apparently visiting Mr. Margiotta. Which reminds me, precious, dinner at the cafeteria might be a good time to speak to him about his disruptiveness. Although it might not take if he brings that tramp with him again, that horse."

Vince Margiotta flings open the chalky aluminum door of his trailer and waves like a scarecrow. Even before the orange coupe toodles to a halt the passenger door is opening. Out piles Denise in her island togs. " Gramps!"

" Neesy, my favorite grandchild. How long's it been?"

" Christ, Gramps, eight years, ten? My best maternal grandpa looks great too, looks just the same. How's about a hug? Over my shoulder you should be catching sight of my current better half, Tink Quinn, also of Baltimore. I didn't tell you he was coming because I wanted to surprise you. Lillian asleep? Gramps, Tink. Tink, Gramps."

" What's happening, Pops? Are those baby palms?"

" Call me Vince, son. Palmettos, some are older than you. Welcome. No trouble on the road? So, Neesy, a little surprise for you too. Lil and I are separated, three months now. We didn't want your mother to worry so we've kept quiet. Also it may not be permanent--not much down here is. You're looking swell. Not the flat-chested little Neesy I used to bounce on my knee. You kids hungry? Want a beer? Ever drink Corona up in Baltimore? There's some cheese and crackers in the kitchen, or I can microwave a pizza."

Denise shakes her head. " We pigged out up the road. But you didn't say where Lillian is. You kick her out, or she split?"

" Son--Tink, is it?--if you two are bunkmates you can take the gear all the way through, past the head. Lillian's right here in Manatee, Neesy, living by herself in a dollhouse trailer on the other side of the golf course. Her decision, and she didn't give any warning. Didn't lay down terms either. If she'd asked me to call a halt to helping Manatee widows through bereavement, I'd have taken it under advisement. But no, no conditions."

Denise raises a finger to interrupt, but Vince continues. " I don't think my charity work drove her to it, incidentally. I've been consoling the random widow since before you were born, and Lillian has certainly known some of it, even if it wasn't our breakfast table conversation."

Tink chuckles but Vince's eye is on his granddaughter. " Why is little you looking crestfallen," he wants to know, " in those sporty duds. Lillian doesn't know you're here. I hoped to have her back by now, and you'd be a surprise, but that's neither here nor there. We'll drop in this afternoon after I've given you and your boyfriend a tour of our retirement paradise. What is it, Neesy girl? I thought I had only one foot in the grave."

" Aw, you're the picture of health, Gramps. I guess I just always romanticized the two of you. I thought of you two in a golden mist down here and I wanted to impress Tink. But listen."

" Yes?"

" I was looking forward to seeing Lillian again too--wait, she is my real gram, right?"

" Realer than real."

" Then why do I call her Lillian?"

" Her doing, Neesy. Something about names. She'll let me address her as Lil but not call her that to any third party unless it's a member of the family."

" So who am I?"

" I should have said, to a member of her generation. Family you certainly are. Lillian loves you too."

" Sure," says Denise. She stands in hot windless sun like a luauer who's bitten off more than she can chew, sweat starting to glint on her white brow and on her whisper of a moustache. Denise says " Sure" as if love were a kind of joke.

Vince saws the air. " But what's the story with you and this potato head, I mean potato eater? Doesn't Baltimore have even one single Italian good enough to be my grand-son-in-law? Did I raise a daughter--how is your mother anyhow?, yes, I want to hear all about her, and don't spare me any gory detail, I'm past taking it personally--but I can't help asking myself, did I raise a daughter who'd raise a daughter to be a traitor to her own kind? Listen." Vince leans back and lays his hands over his kidneys, flapping his elbows. " There's probably nothing wrong with your Tink, but if things don't work out I know two Italian widows here in Manatee. At least one must have an unattached grandson somewhere."

Denise has been thinking. " You want Lillian back, do you?"

" Absolutely. For one thing. . . ."

After a moment Denise says, " Uh, yeah, Gramps?"

Vince twists his neck to stare out over the treetops and mobile-home tops, the lower rims of his eyelids starting to droop away. He kicks a conch shell blistering at the edge of his driveway. " Well, for one thing, I'd like us to be together in our final resting places, if you get my drift. She and I've had this nice little plot waiting for us up in Jersey for thirty years and more. But don't mention it when we visit."

" About that visit, Gramps, I, uh . . ." Denise holds pink plastic in her teeth long enough to corral a barretteful of ringlets at her crown. Attached, they cascade like a mantilla. " After all I'm not sure I want to see Lillian. I can barely remember her, skittish, opening and closing a big purse, long in the tooth. If she's treating you like dirt, Gramps, I wouldn't know how to comport myself. You needn't tell her I'm here. Tink, find the bedroom?"

Tink steps down, bow-legged and expansive. " Nice little cubbyhole you got here, Vince, real homey. Denise'll feel right at home. Toilet's nice and clean too. Looks to me like he don't need any old lady." Tink smoothes back his crew cut and spreads his arms like a singer. " Vince, this is the kind of setup I've dreamed of. The village seems safe enough too. Coming in, we had to tell the monitor our destination. Me, though, I'd consider clearing out some of that tall stuff in back."

" Okay," says Vince. " Maybe I'll let you bush-hog it, Tink. So, who's up for a tour of the compound? More oldsters than you ever saw in one place together, and up to our natural tricks in a scenic habitat. Let's take your car, it'll have the airwaves humming."

Tink rubs his palms. " Sounds good. Why don't you hop in the back, Vince, and direct us. I still drive, babe?"

" Let me. Here, Gramps. Is there room for those legs of yours? I don't remember you this thin."

Tink holds the passenger door open. " How much you weigh there, Vince? You're welcome to twenty of my pounds if we can swing a transfer."

" Make that thirty," says Denise. " And let me choose the thirty. Let's put our top down, Tinker."

" All set?" says Tink. " Okay, Neese, let her rip. Guess we can back straight onto the street--not much fast traffic around here, is there, Pops, I mean Vince. Which way did you say we should head?"

" Back past where you came in," says Vince, his long fingers over the seat backs in front of him. " That a fuz- buster on the dash? This is a sweet little jalopy, Tink, but I don't see how you can have much security with a ragtop. Maybe you don't need it up in Baltimore."

Tink swivels to talk easier with Vince and watch Denise drive. " Don't kid yourself. It'd take an Uzi to make a dent in that fabric. Space grade windows too, and the body's a new industrial composite. Plus there's motion sensors and sirens. Baltimore's not Florida but you gotta take precautions up there too. Right, Neesy?"

Vince points. " What's that beneath the tachometer?"

" Raises and lowers a persuader under the hood. I don't believe in arming civilian vehicles but, hey, the best offense is a good defense. You book around Manatee in that pickup?"

" Little as possible. When I turned in my hack permit in seventy-three I told Lillian she could do our driving from then on, I'd spent enough of my life behind the wheel. Hang a left." Vince pats Denise's left shoulder.

" So where'd you drive a cab, and for how long?" asks Tink as Denise hangs a smooth left onto an avenue leading to water.

" Manhattan Island," says Vince. " Center of the universe, or so it seemed then. For more years than you are old, maybe twice as many."

" Like it?"

Denise chimes in, " Yeah, you recommend it, Gramps?"

Vince says, " Stop here and idle a minute, Neesy. Those are the town docks, and over there are berths and moorings. Through there to the main canal, which gives onto Tampa Bay."

" Got a boat yourself?" asks Tink.

" Couldn't pay me," says Vince. Herons, anhingas, pelicans, gulls, and terns, perched on posts and rails of the docks and on masts and lines of boats riding at anchor, eye the coupe. Near the water's edge two small alligators sun themselves on the boat ramp.

" Cripes," says Denise. " Would you look at that!"

Vince nods. " They're not real. We just keep them there to scare the gulls off, so the ramp doesn't get too slimy."

Tink says, " But there must be some real ones around if shills scare the birds." A breeze wrinkles the surface of the water. " Are there?"

" Yes indeedy," says Vince.

" Ever see one?"

" I think I did once. In a canebrake back of a widow's yard I was mowing, but it might have been a log. You're never sure until it's too late."

" Gramps!" says Denise in a mock reprimand. " How many widows' yards do you mow down here?"

" Twelve or fifteen," says Vince. " They're not all widows either. Anyhow, cabbying wasn't bad, for an Italian that didn't make it past tenth grade."

" How'd you manage that?" says Tink. " Truant officer on the take?"

" I just didn't go back. Lit out one August on a Greyhound headed west. My plan was to work my way around the world to Bermuda and then settle down in a thatched hut long enough to get to know some of those hibiscus girls I thought the island must be crawling with, and to write a newspaper story about my travels. I stepped off the bus in Sauk Center Minnesota and found a job sweeping in a hotel barbershop and running errands for the barbers and customers.

" I lived in the attic of a men's boardinghouse. A Norwegian widow ran it and did the cooking, served pudding every meal, especially bread pudding. There was me, a bank teller, a schoolteacher, a mailman, and a shoe drummer when he was in town, none over thirty. We had good times shooting the bull at the table about politics or whatever, religion, in those days some young people took those things for real. Not me, but lots."

Tink shrugs and turns down the corners of his mouth. Denise sits with thumbs hooked over the bottom of the steering wheel. The engine coughs and she gives it a gentle gun.

Vince continues, " After four or five months I'd saved enough and was pulling up stakes to head on to Frisco. It was my last day at the barbershop and a telegram comes for me. My sainted mother had finally kicked the bucket--Papa had shown her how a year before--and the older brothers and sisters wanted me to come back to watch over the two youngest boys until they could take care of themselves. So." Vince's hands wave out over the orange fenders. " So goodbye Tahiti and the Taj Mahal, goodbye Sphinx, goodbye Paree and those Bermuda wahines. So long, journalistic fame. See you later, I thought I was saying, but it turned out to be addio. Three years later an uncle bonded me for the hack license and another uncle lent me enough for Lillian's diamond.

" Okay, Neesy, right at the bus shelter, hug the shore long as you can and then hang another right just past the wall. People will stare but the sight of me will save you from lynching."

The three pile out and cross the blacktop past salmon bougainvillea and openly skeptical grannies and grampses to the low-slung social hall. Inside in an echoing half-light Vince shows the sign-up sheets. " Anything you want, just give her your John Hancock. You bowl? There's the dance floor." Dimpled black-and-white linoleum on concrete, bleachers under high windows. At the far end rises a modest stage where, Vince explains, Tuesdays at the mike that resembles him he calls square dance. " Ahh-lemand left and a doe-see-doe and a hippy-hop high and a wiggly-worm low. Fuhh-ling-a you partner, don't be shy, when the cows a-come a-home a-then so shall I."

" Gramps?" asks Denise. " That Norwegian pudding widow, was she a corrupter of youth, if you follow?"

Vince shakes his head. " Mrs., what was her name?, was the one got corrupted. She said I was her only man besides her dead husband, and I believe it was the truth. She never smiled. I remember looking down between her plump knees at that dour face. She had earmuff braids and a lantern jaw, and she always frowned like she disapproved of what we were doing. One time I saw tears running down under the braids, and so I stopped, er, moving, and I says, 'Beg pardon, Mrs. Rasmussen, we must be hurting you.' I was still a little wet behind the ears where all that's concerned, so I just braked and asked her flat out like that. Rasmussen she was, I never knew her given name. Maybe Gretl.

" Well, so here's where I call square dances. Lillian deejays and most of the first Tuesday after she walked out on me I spent here learning to operate the CD player and coordinate calls and patter. Come seven, after I'd gone home for a can of beans and duded up, I walks in and there cool as a cucumber at her regular place sits Lillian. Barely notices me. The civic association bought the CD player used from a grandkid, and we get a senior discount for the disks. We have ballroom dancing Saturday nights, aerobics every morning, bridge some afternoons, bingo some, monthly town meetings, memorial services for residents that croak. Dartboard, checkers and chess.

" Okay, that's it for the social hall. We can walk across and see the game room, and on the way look in at the 'Library.' Oh, and could you sign the guest register?"

As Tink writes in trim block capitals, Denise asks, " Grampsy, though, about Ms. Rasmussen. It was thoughtful of you to ask if the balling was causing her discomfort, but you forgot to say what she said. Or maybe you didn't forget exactly."

" I'd tell you if I could," says Vince. " When I said, 'We seem to be hurting you,' Mrs. Rasmussen shook her head from side to side, eyes still closed, and then she said something Norwegian in a real low voice. Then she, ah, gave me to understand that she wanted me to get back down to business. It would be worth learning Norwegian to find out what she said, if only I could remember it. She must be pushing up daisies now."

Halfway to the game room squats the " Library." Vince guides his young charges through a bunkerlike door into a cocoon of hologram screens and weak light where they may finger " books" and sit on an extruded sofa under a hanging shaded lamp to address a reference console. Then the trio proceeds toward the game room, past the Olympic pool where a lone brown swimmer upends in mid-lap to wave.

Vince clasps hands over his head like a champion. " How many so far?"

" You said it," calls Brent. He waves again and resumes the horizontal, to continue his crawl through the bright water.

" Brent's hearing's not what it once was," says Vince, striding away from the pool toward an adobe and pink stucco building. " He and his missus live next door--you'll meet them at dinner. Okay, here we are." Discreet blue neon announces " GAMES" under a brooding lintel. Vince pauses with a foot on the first step. " Retirement village game rooms can be tamer than outside. Still, till somebody locates an OIDS cure, we oldsters need our own amenities. We got booths, video hookups, diddlers, and of course we got the regular public games too, that I can show you."

" Speaking of OIDS there Vince," says Tink, massaging his chin, " I'm assuming you take precautions with your lady friends."

Denise dabs her twinkling brow with a hankie. " I was thinking the same thing, Gramps."

Vince eyes the youngsters beneath him. " Could it be the cash cow up your sleeve Neesy mentioned in her last letter has something to do with such matters?" He cocks a brow and waits.

Denise and Tink search each other and shrug. Palms rattle outside.

" No? At your age I thought everything had to do with such matters. Then time passed, and I re-prioritized somewhat. Anyway don't expect to see geezers with their tooties out in the game room. The booths lock from inside."

" What if a geezer . . ." Denise wants to know.

" Croaks, or starts to? Hey, we're twenty-first century state of the art here. A gamester can have a high old time at the screen safe in the knowledge that erratic behavior, except for the usual, erratic behavior including simple stasis gets noticed through the electric eye in the back of the booth. A bonded concierge overrides the lock and sounds alarms. Nice of you to ask, though."

Half a mile east of the activity complex behind a faded caboose thunk, thunk goes the hoe of a tall spinster in gumshoes, overalls, a sailor jersey, and a deep sunbonnet, Vola Byrd. Thunk thunk, crang on a rock, thunk thunk to the end of a row turned for winter parsley. " Whew!" Vola skins off her bonnet, tosses it and the hoe against a cinderblock wall, and turns back to appraise the truck garden with her famous Windex eyes.

For most of her sixty-eight years Vola Byrd has eaten a good bunch or two of parsley a week. " Heavy on the parsley, hon," she instructed waiters during her Manhattan years in the real estate fast lane. Now that reverses have landed her here in a leaky Flagler Railroad relic on an 18x60 lot, scraping by with a miserly pension, parsley's one thing Vola won't scrimp on, even though getting her fill under budget means hopping clods like her mother in Oklahoma the better part of a century ago. First thing tomorrow Vola will cast seed and turn it under. She could have bought plugs, but transplanting parsley's unlucky. Leastwise it probably would be to Vola.

Inside, horizontal Gulf light floods the caboose. Vola sits on a lower bunk to slide long white feet out of her boots. Clum, sounds an empty boot on gray pine almost petrified with age, clum the other, flackle flackle the pair as Vola's naked heels hustle them under. She steps across to a wicker hamper beside a wicker telephone table under a gaggle of clothes hangers on a pipe. Humming a snatch of national anthem like an electric oboe, Vola sheds her remaining clothing and lets it billow into the hamper. Oodle oodle oodle sounds the phone. Vola barely glances at the caller's number before she brushes past into the bathroom and activates the shower.

Bending to position her head lower than the showerhead to wet her silver bob with soft Manatee water, Vola reflects anew on the cruelty of her present pickle. If only Silicon Valley hadn't popped, if only bin Laden had had second thoughts. Vola turns, fills a palm with golden shampoo, and suds it. Vola M. Byrd, having clambered up from the Okie dustbowl to the highest reaches of Trump Tower, now bends to rinse under a rusted shower head in an abandoned caboose plunked onto a postage-stamp plot abutting the zoom zoom freeway audible even under the spray.

Vola who, without benefit of matrimony or any helpmeet for longer than a few weeks max, made herself a real estate name that was reckoned with as recently as twenty months back, a name that stood under sixteenth-page aerial views in the Sunday Times magazine through two decades, now rises from under the misting needles and shakes back her gray in an aqua nook the very gardener's wife on one of the estates she has marketed would turn up a nose at. Vola soaps the loofah that came with her to Manatee because no Queens passerby made an offer for it on the sidewalk outside the apartment that marked the last stage of her precipitous New York decline. She reaches over to scrub wide shoulder blades and their valley and then turns, " Whoops!," losing the soap bar but cornering it against the fiberglass before it can skitter out of reach. Spray against shoulders, she slides her left forearm under her breasts and lifts them to expose the ribcage beneath for the loofah, and somehow finds herself saying, " Easy come, easy go," even though in truth neither was easy and only the going was fast.

Toweling down on the mat, Vola says the line again. Might it give her a rakish appeal? Because now for the first time it may be necessary to consider such matters. Vola who for decades expected to retire to a Riverside Drive penthouse knows that unless something changes she'll be turned out of this very caboose before the year's end. And Vola M. Byrd has no desire to wind up selling matches to crackheads under a bridge.

Drying, Vola steps nude to her lingerie drawer, where she begins to gird herself for a social evening of the sort available to a woman of a certain age in reduced circumstances. At her makeshift vanity she lays aside her tortoiseshell bifocals and, nose nearly against the mirror, does her eyes. She replaces the bifocals with a rueful glance at the case that holds her last set of disposable contacts.