Matthew Lansburgh | Queen of Sheba

Lansburgh

 

Al gives me zero. All day long he sits glued to his armchair, drinking glass after glass of V-8 juice and making a mess with his crackers. The crumbs end up everywhere—the upholstery, the carpet, all over the little table he drags in front of the TV. At dinner, he’s tight-lipped. In bed it’s the same. For quite some time, he’s been unable to satisfy me. Even when we first met, he had difficulty in this department. He was not even 70 then. I was just 61. For a woman, especially one who keeps in good shape, this is quite young.

I play violin. I play tennis. I go hiking and skiing. None of this interests him. Finally, for my birthday, I said, “That’s it! I go crazy with you. At least take me on a small trip.” I called up his daughter, Laurie, who has this adorable little Crystal and invited them along to Las Vegas. “Come on,” I said, “we go to the Circus Circus hotel.”

In summertime, this place is a steal—$29.95 a night. For that you get everything: a huge amusement park full of games, including roller coaster, slot machines coming out of your ears, and of course the main attraction: a circus, complete with stadium seating.

All night I stayed up packing the car, making nice jagdwurst sandwiches and a wonderful curry from these frozen shrimp they sell by the package at Vons. I made sure to bring lemon-lime Hansen’s and even a few M&M’s.

Laurie is just like her father—provides no help whatsoever. She showed up empty-handed, wearing these sweatpants of hers. “What’s wrong?” I said. “Aren’t you happy to go on a trip?”

“Yeah. We’re happy.” She works as a nurse at the hospital and always shuffles behind. Crystal at least shows her enthusiasm. She brought along two dolls in nice outfits and these picture books I bought her for Christmas full of beautiful castles from Europe.

Last year, Laurie’s husband had an affair with a woman from church. Laurie came home at lunch and found them in bed. For three months she cried. “Laurie,” I told her, “these things happen sometimes. You have to learn to forgive.”

No, no, no. She wouldn’t listen. She went to a lawyer to get a divorce. “Don’t be so rash,” I said. “Raising a child on one’s own isn’t that easy.”

“How can I ever trust him again?” she asked me, blowing her nose. “What kind of example would that be for Crystal?”

What could I say? Was I going to tell her that Al himself had once cheated on me? Some people are too stubborn to listen. Laurie is still young. She thinks the world will hand her French toast on a silver platter. She didn’t grow up in wartime when a pair of shoes was a luxury not to be had. She never struggled on food stamps. Look at me, I wanted to tell her. Do you think your father is the Prince Charming I had in mind? We all make compromises in life.

+ +

Six hours we drove, Al at the wheel. Luckily, this is one area where he can deliver. Never gets tired. Crystal behaved herself nicely in the backseat while I taught her the songs I sang as a girl in Garmisch. Laurie said nothing, watching us with a long face.

Finally we arrived. The hotel was fantastic. Super luxurious. “Come on, Crystal,” I said. “Let’s have ourselves some fun!” We rushed down to the nickel machines before even checking into the room. Crystal held onto the cup with the coins and kept count. First try, I hit three cherries—twenty dollar payout came down. Twenty bucks! I put half in my purse, then kept going.

Few minutes later there came this man with a very thin moustache, like an inspector. “Madam,” he said, “minors are not permitted in the casino.”

“She just sits here politely and watches. I don’t allow her to play.”

“Sorry, ma’am. House rules. No one allowed under twenty-one.”

“That’s ridiculous. We drove all the way from California to give her some fun. Today is her birthday!”

“No exceptions,” he said, very stern.

“Fine. Upstairs with Papa,” I told her. “It’s time for the old guy to do some work now.”

That night Al took us for a fabulous All You Can Eat dinner, though as usual, he refused to wear decent clothes—he insisted on this old red shirt he always has on, while I put on my gorgeous burgundy outfit. Very sexy. The men in line couldn’t take their eyes off me.

The meal was out of this world. Crystal loaded up on the sweet tangerines she adores, while Al and I gorged ourselves on salmon filets and expensive prime rib. Laurie sat there with a small salad. “Come on,” I said, “have yourself some of these entrees. It all comes included.”

“I’m on a diet,” she said. She’s always on a diet. Doesn’t do any good. I have offered many times to teach her tennis, but she never accepts.

“Fine, but if you want a nice body, you need to get out of the house. You can’t just sit in front of the TV eating powdered donuts out of the box.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” she said, very snippy. “My weight issues are my problem, not yours.”

“Suit yourself. Just don’t expect room service later tonight.”

After the meal, Al wanted to go back to the room. No big surprise. Laurie and Crystal went with him to watch TV while I strolled around on my own. Immediately, a wonderfully dressed gentleman with blazer and tie caught my eye. He was busy explaining a card game to a group of old fogies, and as I approached he looked up and gave me a movie-star smile. “Why don’t you join us,” he said, pointing to the last empty seat. I sat down very student-like while he continued his spiel. Blackjack was the name. For me it was new. You want to get twenty-one but not more. He spoke in a baritone voice.

“There is such a thing as a hard sixteen and a soft sixteen,” he said, looking into my eyes. “The ace can be played two ways, aces and eights should always be split. Then there is also insurance. At seventeen the house stands.”

Luckily I had paper and pen in my handbag so I could write it all down.

Next he wanted us to pull out our money. “Ha! Not a chance! I watch but don’t play.”

“Come on,” he said to me. “Just give it a try.”

“Fine, I buy two chips with my afternoon winnings.” So I gave my ten dollar bill, and he dealt the cards. First hand, I lost five smackers!

“That’s it,” I said. “I take my chip and go home.”

“Go home? You just got here.”

He had this very persuasive way.

“No, no, no.” Off I went to the Ladies’ Room.

When I came out, who did I see but the same gentleman. He came over to me, very suave. “You’re a knockout. What’s a beautiful woman like you doing here all alone?”

“I came here with a girlfriend of mine who’s sick with the flu. She’s upstairs in bed in her nightie.”

“Come, let me buy you a drink.” He had ocean blue eyes and silver hair.

“A drink would be wonderful. I love a cold Coke.”

He put out his arm and escorted me through the halls. “A Coke for the lady and a Bloody Mary for me,” he told the bartender. Then he turned to me and, just like that, he kissed my hand. “You’re a beautiful woman,” he said, caressing my skin.

I almost collapsed to the floor.

“Where do you come from?”

“Me? From Germany. Near the Austrian border.”

“Ah, Germany. Can you yodel?”

“Of course, but not here.”

Then he tried to entice me to come back to his place. Joops! I got up. “I have to go,” I said. “My friend is in need. She’s sick as a dog. I promised I bring her some soup.”

“So quickly? We’re just getting acquainted.”

He rubbed his finger over my arm, then gave me the most sensual kiss. Right there at the bar. Luckily, my gang was nowhere around. Down the hall I went, rather coquettishly, leaving my name on a card.

+ +

All night long, I was unable to sleep. For five years I had been a good girl, respecting my vows. Even when I found out about Al and Gloria Delgado, I still didn’t stray. “I forgive you,” I told him, when he came crying to me, saying he’d made a mistake. Then, three years ago, he had the stroke and I also stuck by. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll help you recover.” I drove him to physical therapy and made hand exercises to help him regain his strength. A woman should stick by her man, I told myself. After all, a woman my age does not have so many options. Elke, my friend from the German club, tells me I’m lucky to have someone like Al. “At least he takes you to dinner,” she says. “The only men who ever call me split everything right down the middle.”

Eventually the sun peeked into our room, and I put on my house shoes. I wanted to go down the hall to find myself some ice cubes from the machine. I opened the door and what did I see before me but an oversized bouquet of red roses. I thought, Must be a mistake. They have delivered these flowers to the wrong room. I bent down to look at the card and saw “To Heike” in pen on the envelope. “You’ve stolen my heart,” there was written inside. “Meet me tonight at the bar for a drink. I get off at 9:00. Your admirer, Jerome.”

“What on earth can I do with these flowers?” I wondered. Quickly, I took them into the bathroom. Each flower was gorgeous—very long-stemmed. Must have cost him a fortune!

My God, I said to myself. This is a true gentleman.

I sat in the bathroom for at least half an hour trying to figure out what I could possibly tell Al. Should I say the flowers came from my son in Boston? From this student who comes over on Tuesdays to learn violin? It had been years since Al gave me a bouquet.

Finally, he got up and knocked at the bathroom.

“You never guess who sent me some roses,” I said. “Bernie Kramer.” Bernie is my tennis date each Wednesday at 10:00. Al knows I don’t find him one bit attractive; I call him the shrimp, he’s so short.

“Bernie? Bernie sent you red roses?”

“Yes, you know how he has this little crush on me. He wanted to do something nice for my birthday.”

“Oh,” said Al, sitting down on the pot. “You told him you were going to Vegas?”

“Of course I told him. I had to cancel our tennis. Are you jealous?”

“Of the shrimp? Should I be?”

“Come on,” I said, “I invite you all to breakfast.” So we got the gang and went downstairs where they had this wonderful buffet. Ninety-nine cents apiece. We loaded up on thick sausages and sunny-side eggs. In went a few of the links to my handbag, wrapped in napkins, so we would have something later to eat. I had promised Crystal we go to the water slide, and everyone knows how expensive the lunches there are.

Everyone brushed their teeth, then off we went to Soak City. We found a free parking spot in the shade, and Laurie and Al insisted on waiting for us under a tree.

“Come on, Laurie,” I said, “put on your bikini. It will be fun!”

Of course, she had no interest in accompanying us.

“Why not? Didn’t you bring it along?”

“No, Heike,” she said to me, very haughty. “I did not bring my bikini along.”

Crystal had on her cute butterfly one-piece that I bought her last summer. She really is adorable, so full of life with her rosy cheeks and blond hair.

“I’ll race you, Grandma,” she said, running up the hill and getting in line. First run, we went on one mat together, splashing into the water full force. The speed you pick up going down these long tubes is incredible! Immediately, the girl raced back up to the top. All afternoon, we had a ball. It’s good for the child to have fun, I thought to myself. Tonight will be my turn. I wanted to tire her out so she’d fall asleep.

Sure enough, by 9:30, Crystal and Laurie were snoring up a storm next door in their room. Al had on his pajamas and was watching a show on monkeys who live in the snow.

“You know what,” I said, “I think I go down and play a few more slot machines. For some reason, I have excess energy.”

“Now?”

“Yep. You make yourself comfy. I’ll be back later on.”

Quickly I changed into my nice low-cut dress and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The Queen of Sheba could come out in the nude, and he’d give no reaction at all.

The walk alone to the bar was quite something. I felt like royalty, making my way through these corridors, each one with wall-to-wall carpet. Everywhere you see shiny brass.

I arrived at the bar, and sure enough Jerome was waiting in a wonderful cream-colored suit, sipping something delicious.

“You look ravishing,” he said to me.

“Do I?”

I stood there for a moment, letting him soak it all in.

“I’ve been hoping you’d show up,” he said. Immediately, he called the bartender over. “Louie, bring this beautiful woman your best strawberry margarita.”

“A strawberry margarita? Are you trying to get me drunk right away?”

“Would you prefer something else?”

“No, no, a strawberry margarita sounds fabulous. I haven’t had one in years.”

Well now here’s a refined gentleman, I thought to myself. How on earth am I going to entertain him? So I told him these stories about my mother’s family in Leipzig before the war and how they sold furs and went to the opera. I narrated the struggles I had as a single mother until I met Gerry, my knight in polished armor.

Jerome took quite an interest, listening very well, then said, “Heike, come with me for a walk. I know a place in the desert where at night the moon lights up all the cactus. It’s very romantic. I want to share it with you.”

“A walk? At such a late hour?”

“Come on,” he said.

What is there really to lose? I thought. A man this age surely won’t kidnap me. All year I sit at home, night after night. Why not live a little?

“Fine. I accompany you. But promise I be back before midnight. We leave tomorrow at nine in the morning, and I don’t want my friend to worry about me.”

“We’ll be back in time. The night is still young.”

So we started out to his car and he guided me along, holding my arm in his hand. Just feeling him next to me made my legs tingle. Sure enough, he drove a Cadillac—very big and fancy with thick cushions. He put his key into the ignition and made some nice music. Then he turned to me and said, “I’m crazy for you, you know that? You’re all I’ve been thinking about.”

“My goodness,” I said.

“Shhh. No talking.” He leaned over, took me into his arms, and gave me a kiss. A real kiss. So passionate I almost passed out. He put his hands in my hair and kissed my neck. I can still smell his cologne.

“You have perfect breasts,” he said to me. “So many other women get these implants nowadays. Yours are so natural.”

“Of course they’re natural. I come from the Alps!”

Then he got very fresh.

“Jerome,” I said. “What are you doing?”

“I crave you, Heike.”

“What about this wonderful walk you promised?”

“The walk? Do you want me to stop?”

“Yes, I’m not this kind of woman.” He seemed rather surprised, but he straightened himself.

“I’m sorry. I got carried away. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course I forgive you,” I said, wondering whether I was too firm in my rejection of him.

Jerome drove me through the Las Vegas strip full of neon lights, giving me a detailed tour. “Here’s the famous Bellagio where they have paintings by Renoir and Van Gogh.” Then he pointed out the Sphinx, and I wondered whether he might hold my hand. I had a feeling that once we arrived at these cactus, he would try to seduce me again.

Eventually we left the city and began driving out in the desert. “I wish you didn’t live so far away,” he said to me. “I feel a real connection to you.” He told me how lonely he’s been since his wife passed away. For the past three years, he’s lived like a monk.

“I know what you mean. It’s hard living alone.”

Few minutes later, he pulled to the side of the road. “This is it?” I asked.

“Don’t sound so disappointed. You’ll see how special it is.” We got out of the car and looked up at the sky; everywhere there were stars. There, in the distance, was the moon keeping watch. “Do you see the Little Dipper?” he asked. He pointed out the handle with the North Star. I wondered whether he would try to embrace me again. I closed my eyes, allowing him to come close.

“See there, down this path,” he said, “there are some of the largest boulders in the state of Nevada.”

“Is that so?” I said, looking at him. He took my hand in his and led me down a small path. Luckily, my shoes had flat soles. He told me this is where he comes when he wants to be alone and feel connected to nature. “Helen and I came here on our wedding night. We camped over there, right under the stars.”

We walked together until the path became too narrow for us to go side by side, and I couldn’t help but think about Gerry. Once, before he got cancer, we went down to the beach with a flashlight. We packed a blanket and a bottle of wine and made love in front of the waves. I wondered whether Gerry could see me from Heaven, amidst these large rocks, and I wished I was walking with him. Even at the end when he was nearly unable to move, he told me he loved me and kissed me goodnight.

“Jerome, I have something to tell you,” I said finally. “I hope you will not think less of me. I am actually married. I live with a man in California.” I apologized for lying to him.

“Really?” he said, stopping near one of the cactus. “But you don’t have a ring.”

The moon was high, and it made the rocks and the sand and the cactus look almost silver. In this desert at night, everything seemed far away. Then, for some reason, I began to cry. “Jerome, would you mind holding me?”

He complied, embracing me. Standing there in this empty place, I felt like I needed to talk. I told him that after Gerry died, I didn’t know whether I would ever find someone to be with again. I told him about my sleepless nights alone in the house and about Al. “He’s a nice man,” I said. “He swims in the pool every day. He used to before he had the stroke. Now, his shoulder bothers him all the time. The doctors say it may not ever get better. At first I thought he loved me, but then I found out that he had made love to a checker at Von’s. He told me she seduced him, but it doesn’t matter.”

I stopped for a moment and went over to one of the rocks to sit down. “Need a hankie?” Jerome asked, handing me a kerchief.

I told him about Laurie, how much she hates me. “I try to be nice to her. I used to pick her little girl up from school sometimes, but now she forbids me to do even this. She tells me it’s all taken care of. She says she’s a Christian, but she can be terribly cold. I was hoping so much we could be a nice family, but last Christmas she didn’t even want to come over. She just dropped the presents off at the door and said they were late for a shindig at church.”

Jerome told me he’s sorry and put his hand on my back.

“Jerome,” I said, looking at him. “Do you think I’m still pretty?”

“Of course, Heike. You’re a very beautiful woman. You know that.”

“But I have so many wrinkles. It must be from too much tennis. After Gerry died, I got a facelift, but that was a disaster. The doctor was a butcher. For months my skin was all swollen and red.”

“You don’t need any facelifts. You’re very attractive. Look, it’s getting late. We should probably be heading back. Are you okay? Can you walk?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spilled all these beans.”

At first, as we retraced our steps, he put his arm around me, but then, where the path became narrow, he walked in front once again. The closer we got to the car, the more I wished that I hadn’t been so honest with him. You should have just kept your mouth shut, I told myself. Now your make-up is ruined.

“I think I got a blister,” I said when we got to the car. “Do you mind if I take off my shoe?” Sure enough, the skin on my heel was starting to bleed.

He offered me a Band-Aid and then, as he started the car, I smoothed down the fabric of my red dress, accentuating the length of my legs.

“Be honest,” I said. “Do you think that it’s possible to find love at our age? Do you think you will find it again?”

He leaned forward and turned on the radio. “Love is a hard thing. Some people never find it at all.”

From the speakers came music like they present in old movies. It reminded me of a record Gerry played for me when we first met. “This is nice,” I said.

“Yeah, I’m just not in the mood,” he said, turning the knob until a man’s voice came into the car. The man talked about the news from the Orient, how villagers capture dogs and sell them for fur.

The sky was black, and as we drove Jerome kept very quiet. “Tell me about Helen,” I said, wanting to break the silence.

“Helen? What do you mean?”

“What was she like?”

“We met in high school. She was the smartest girl in our class. What can I say? I was lucky to have her for as long as I did.” He rolled down his window and kept both hands on the wheel. Suddenly, I felt quite sad. We stopped at a red light not far from the hotel. “Have you thought of getting remarried?” I finally asked.

“Me? I’m too old for that now.”

“You’re not too old. You still have the golden years to enjoy.”

He smiled but kept his eyes on the road.

We pulled into the entrance of the Circus Circus, and he drove me up to the door. “Here you go, Heike. I hope your friend’s feeling better.”

I looked at him and wondered whether he would turn off the motor. “That’s it?” I said.

“Yep, that’s it. It’s late. I need to get home.”

“Don’t you at least want my address?” I got out a pen so we could exchange information. “Ventana Beach is very nice,” I told him. “Perhaps one day you can come visit.”

He smiled at me, but the smile was cold—like a businessman paying his bill. I leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek, then got out of the car. Inside the hotel, the slot machines were still wide-awake. I walked through the lobby and wondered what the future would hold. Tomorrow we would drive back to Ventana Beach and that would be that.

At the elevator, I looked at myself in the mirror—I put on more lipstick and fixed up my hair, in case Al had trouble sleeping. Sometimes, at home, I stay up watching TV, and when I go to bed, Al has not yet fallen asleep. Even if he cannot make love, he still likes to embrace.

When I opened the door to the room, I saw that Al had left the bathroom light on for me. I saw him lying in bed, under the covers. “Al?” I called, softly. I stood there in the hallway, next to the closet, letting my eyes fully adjust.

I put on my nightgown and got into bed, replaying the night in my head. You always say the wrong thing, I scolded myself. You ruined everything. You should have just kept your mouth shut and had a good time. Something about the sheets and pillow smelled smoky and gray.

Then, out from the darkness, Al reached over and touched my arm. “Did you make us rich?” he asked.

“What?”

“Did you hit the jackpot?”

“Did I wake you up, darling?”

“Nah, I’ve been awake. I couldn’t sleep. The damn ice machine down the hall keeps making a racket.”

“You better get some rest,” I told him, knowing I shouldn’t say more. “Tomorrow is a long drive.”

“I’ll be okay. Tell me, honey, did you have a good birthday?”

I lay there for a minute, looking up at the ceiling, wishing for some kind of sound. Through the curtains, a light from the parking lot shined in from outside. Maybe Elke is right, I thought to myself. A bird in one’s hand gives more eggs than a flock in the bush. “It was one of my best,” I said.

 


Matthew Lansburgh received an MFA in fiction from NYU where he was a Veterans Writing Fellow. His stories have been published in Columbia: A Journal of Literature & ArtGuernicaHobart, and Slice, and he has received two Pushcart Prize nominations. He recently attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar in Fiction.  www.matthewlansburgh.com

2016-02-10T23:17:05+00:00