Terry was watching ESPN in the living room of their Delray Beach condo when Susan called from the kitchen.
“We’re out of paper towels.”
Terry knew what his line was.
“Why don’t I run to Publix and get some?”
“You don’t have to do that.”
He did, of course, and it had to be his idea, which was fine. An occasional trip to the store was the only demand placed on him during their vacation. Susan took care of everything else. He reached for the keys to the rental car.
“Need anything else while I’m there?”
She shook her head, radiating domestic felicity like a space heater. He wondered whether retirement, when it finally arrived, would be like this — a soft nest to rest in and nothing to worry about.
The morning air was ocean-moist and the South Florida sun hadn’t risen high enough to cook the interior of the Camry. He pressed the key fob, heard the lock click, and got in. The car still had that welcoming new-car smell. He put the key in the ignition, reached for the shoulder harness, strapped himself in, and backed out of their assigned parking spot. Terry was off to Publix for paper towels.
He crept along narrow streets with houses crammed together, maneuvering around people walking dogs or on their way to the beach. The sound of a garbage truck penetrated the passenger compartment, machinery lifting containers and then the clatter of trash dumped in its reverberating maw.
At the intersection with A1A, he took a right. In Delray Beach, A1A is a two-lane road only yards from the beach. Seniors were out, tooling around at 20 miles an hour in Cadillacs and Buicks, turn signals flashing but their cars never turning, letting their freak flags fly. He was trapped behind an old man hunched over the steering wheel. Bike riders in helmets easily cycled past them both. He suppressed his impatience — old people deserved respect. He’d be one himself, sooner rather than later. How had that happened? It was as if one day he’d looked in the mirror and the man looking back reminded him he’d be eligible for Medicare next year.
Terry took another right. No longer behind a senior-mobile, he sailed down Linton Boulevard, over the bridge, and within minutes was turning into the crowded Publix parking lot. He saw a perfect parking spot, exactly the shortest distance to the entrance, and no handicap sign. But approaching from the opposite direction was a senior in an old Lincoln Town Car who was floating toward the same spot. The old guy had seen it first, so Terry stopped and waited for the man to park.
But the old guy stopped as well. Like two knights at a joust, they faced each other. The old guy stepped on the gas and his Lincoln jerked forward, past the spot, and screeched to a halt beside Terry’s car. The old man had a sun-damaged face, bushy silver eyebrows, and shocks of hair protruding from his nostrils like pornographic bouquets. He stared straight ahead, as if in a trance.
Then Terry heard an ear-shattering thump-thump of bass speakers behind him and saw a pickup truck in his rearview mirror. The driver was nodding his shaved head and slapping his hands against the steering wheel in time with the music. Terry turned back to the old man in the Lincoln and saw him press his hands against his chest and then slump over. Terry shifted his car into park, jumped out, and opened the door of the Lincoln. The man was sliding down in the seat. Terry took hold of his arm.
“Are you all right?”
The man shook his head. Terry pulled out his phone, tapped in 9-1-1.
“I think this man is having a heart attack,” he said. While Terry told the operator where they were and recounted what he’d seen, the guy from the truck ran over, saw what was happening, and called out to a Haitian bag boy in a green Publix apron who was collecting abandoned shopping carts.
“Get some aspirin!”
The old man’s eyes had closed. Terry couldn’t tell if he was still breathing.
“I have aspirin!”
Terry looked over his shoulder at a silver-haired woman behind him, opening her purse. She pulled out an aspirin bottle. The truck guy opened the passenger-side door, climbed in, and pressed with both hands on the old man’s chest in rapid pulses.
After the paramedics took the old man away, Terry found himself talking with Nancy, the lady who’d had the aspirin.
“They should have emergency responders on stand-by,” she said. “The number of seniors who shop here? Heart attacks are foreseeable. If my husband were alive, he’d sue Publix for millions. Arnie was a lawyer. He always won.”
Terry, an attorney himself, doubted that Publix could be stuck with liability, but kept his mouth shut. Nancy looked down, as if thinking, then back at Terry.
“I think I know him. Aaron Goldman. He played golf with Arnie at the club. His wife’s name is Debbie.”
Nancy pulled out her phone.
“Give me your contact information,” she said. “I have friends who will know whether that was Aaron. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
This was more involvement than Terry wanted, but he couldn’t say no. She typed his number into her phone. The sun was climbing in the sky, blindingly bright, reflecting into his eyes off the roofs and hoods of the cars in the lot. It was hot.
“There’s a special on strawberries,” Nancy said, nodding at Publix. “I’m making a strawberry pie for my book club tonight.”
Nancy said goodbye and made for the crosswalk that led to the sliding glass doors, passing a fortyish woman with big sunglasses and a muffin top spilling over the waistband of her shorts. Another Haitian bag boy in a green Publix apron was pushing a full shopping cart behind her. It reminded Terry the world continued to turn no matter who had a heart attack.
The old man’s Lincoln was blocking the way, so Terry slipped into the driver’s seat, a little creeped out, as if heart attacks might be contagious. He drove the Lincoln to the far end of the parking lot, locked it, and wondered what to do with the keys. His phone buzzed. He saw texts from his wife — where ru? ru ok?
He texted back: Medical emergency in parking lot. Had to call paramedics. It wasn’t me, I’m fine. Do we need strawberries?
She texted back: We’re out of paper towels.
That’s why he’d come, the paper towel emergency that seemed a lifetime ago. Terry entered store, refreshed by the air conditioning, and grabbed paper towels, remembering Susan would want him to get the good ones, price be damned. The Haitian bagging groceries at checkout was the one the truck guy had screamed at to get aspirin, and he asked Terry whether the old man was okay. Terry said he didn’t know.
Terry crossed the parking lot to where he’d left his car. He noticed how many people coming and going had withered frames and postures curved forward, closer to the dirt that would swallow them all someday. Retirement no longer seemed to Terry like a soft nest to rest in with nothing to worry about.
Nancy texted that night, saying the man at Publix indeed had been Aaron Goldman and gave him the old man’s hospital and room number.
Visiting at 11 tomorrow. Be in lobby @ 10:55. We can go up together.
She was strong-arming him to visit the old man with her. She and Arnie, the husband-lawyer who never lost a case, must have been a pair. He showed the text to Susan.
“We can go to the beach when you get back,” she said. Susan assumed he was going. He assumed he wasn’t.
“I should go?”
“You saved his life,” she said. “How can you not?”
“The guy who performed CPR saved his life.”
“You phoned the paramedics.”
“I’ll lose a whole afternoon of our vacation,” he said. “Our time is precious.”
“The same could be said about Aaron Goldman’s time, too.”
He sighed. Susan always got these things right. If she thought he should go, he should. He texted Nancy back, confirming.
“Don’t forget to take flowers,” Susan said, looking over his shoulder as he pressed Send.
The next morning, he stopped by the florist, then motored to the hospital. The parking lot seemed small for a hospital, but just as he arrived someone pulled out of a spot near the entrance. It was perfect.
The hospital lobby was like a sun room because the front wall was floor-to-ceiling windows. Nancy was sitting on a pastel lavender couch bathed in beams streaming in through the glass like heaven’s light shining on Jesus.
“You came,” she said, as if erasing the demerit she’d just entered beside his name. “I called Debbie last night.”
She acted like Terry should understand. When she saw he didn’t, she said, “Debbie, his wife. I told her what happened. She appreciated hearing details from an eyewitness.”
He followed Nancy to the elevators with his flowers. Moments later the elevator doors opened to a brightly lit hallway that smelled of cleaning fluid. Terry looked at room numbers as they walked, trying to find an organizing principle that would lead them to room 312, but Nancy walked like she knew exactly where she was going. Living in Delray Beach year-round, she’d probably visited this hospital many times. He wondered how many of her friends had died here. When they arrived at 312, Nancy stepped boldly into the room without knocking, and he followed.
The room was empty. There were a couple of easy chairs and a night table, but no bed. It reminded him of an empty parking spot.
“Maybe he’s having a procedure,” she said. “Let’s ask.”
He followed her to the nurse’s station, a hub at the intersection of several hallways, where two women and a man in pale blue scrubs studied computer screens.
“We’re here to visit Arnold Goldman,” Nancy announced imperiously to a nurse with light brown hair and no make-up, “but there’s no one in his room.”
The woman looked at the computer screen and played with the mouse.
“We have an Aaron Goldman,” she said. Arnold was Nancy’s deceased husband. She’d made a Freudian slip.
“Yes, Aaron Goldman,” Nancy said. “Has he been moved?”
The nurse studied the screen. Her expression drooped, and she looked at Nancy apologetically.
“He passed away this morning.”
Nancy expression passed from sober to somber to resigned, like a general mourning the loss of one of her soldiers. Terry suddenly realized that, at a certain age, all seniors were in the same army fighting the same enemy — death — and Nancy had conscripted Terry into her army.
When Nancy phoned and said Debbie hoped Terry would come to the funeral, it seemed strange to Terry. He didn’t know these people.
“You called the paramedics,” Susan said. “You’re connected.”
So now, Terry was standing in the cemetery, Susan on one side, Nancy on the other, and a rabbi was reciting from Psalms:
For a thousand years in Thy sight
Are but as yesterday when it is past,
And as a watch in the night.
Terry’s thoughts drifted to the day of the hospital visit. After learning Aaron had passed, Nancy had asked him to have lunch with her at a deli across the street. They’d had Reubens and iced tea and she’d talked about Arnie, who’d also died of a heart attack.
“It’s why I carry aspirin,” she’d said, as if she might atone for Arnie’s death by saving someone else’s life. The rabbi’s voice drew Terry back to the present.
We bring our years to an end as a tale that is told.
A car horn honked, reminding Terry that in the streets bordering the cemetery, tales of life were being written by busy hearts unmindful of death, as if we’d all eaten fruit from the tree of life and would live forever.
Yet is their pride but travail and vanity;
For it is speedily gone, and we fly away.
Terry squeezed Susan’s hand, thinking he took his blessings for granted. He glanced at Nancy. Her eyes were closed and tears were rolling down her lined and powdered cheeks. This wasn’t a funeral for Aaron, it was a séance for Arnie.
So teach us to number our days,
That we may get us a heart of wisdom.
Debbie and some of the others were wearing torn black ribbons. Terry was wearing a yarmulke that had been provided to him. Almost everyone there was old and, he presumed, Jewish. He was starting to feel old and Jewish, too. He looked at the mouth of the grave dug for Aaron Goldman’s coffin. Aaron would never have to look for another parking spot.
Morning was their favorite time to come to the beach. He and Susan set up their beach cabana as close to the water as possible, where the rising tide would, in a few hours, threaten to lap across their feet. To their right, a lone woman lay face down on a beach towel. To their left, a mom and her little girl tiptoed into the water. The girl squealed each time the sea rushed in. Out in the ocean, the horizon was clear except for a speck of a ship. Modest blue-green waves faithfully caressed the shore.
“This is heaven,” Susan said. It was.
“You need nose clippers,” she said. “You have old man’s nose hair.”
It reminded him of the moment he’d seen Aaron Goldman’s face in the parking lot at Publix, his Lincoln stopped beside Terry, twin bouquets wildly twining from his nostrils. Just then, a young kid ran across their stretch of the beach, tossed his boogie board on the wavelets, and jumped on, crouching and extending his arms to balance. Terry smiled. The kid would have a whole lifetime to play but wouldn’t appreciate it until it was almost over. He glanced at Susan. Her face was beatific.
The afternoon sun had cooked the interior of the Camry, so Terry opened two doors, turned the engine on, cranked up the AC, and gave it a minute to cool. Then he climbed in, shifted into reverse, and backed out of their assigned parking spot.
He maneuvered around people walking to and from the beach, some of whom had parked along the narrow streets of the neighborhood to escape paying at the public lot. He heard hammers and power saws. Construction near the beach never stopped, as old homes were remodeled or torn down and rebuilt in the never-ending quest for better and more. Finally, he emerged at the intersection with A1A.
Seniors were on the road, returning from golf or bridge or the book club, cruising at 20 miles an hour in their Cadillacs and Buicks, turn signals flashing but their cars never turning, letting their freak flags fly. Terry fell in place behind the others, like he was part of a motorcade. If Publix didn’t have nose clippers, Walgreen’s would.
Featured image: merrymuuu / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now