Vigorous senior citizens prison break a nursing home. Powerful enemies stand in the way of beach living, romance, and spending time with a pot-smoking surfer. Join Mary, the Catholic; Ed, the atheist; Tina, the Thespian, and Legend, the surfer. Lively, yet timely, Escape from Sunny Shores, explores the changing parameters of aging. And it's a lot of fun to read.
Ronnie watched the apartment from his BMW, the engine off, the windows down. Nine o’clock at night and hot as hell, no breeze, the suffocating air reeking of cedar and car exhaust. San Antonio was even hotter than Corpus Christi, if that was possible. A dry heat, people said, although to him it was all miserable.
It was his second night, and he worried that someone would notice his car, gorgeous hunk of glass and steel that it was. He worried less about someone noticing him. No one ever paid attention to him. Not women, not men, not even muggers. He hated it that he was so nondescript, yet it was his greatest strength at that moment.
The smell of the doughnuts wafted up to him from the passenger seat. Only three remained. Sure, maybe he needed to lose a few pounds, who didn’t, but he needed courage. He chose a Bavarian cream, took a bite, and savored the yummy filling until his tooth sang in pain. Damn, another cavity.
Suddenly, the light in the apartment went out. Was it show time? He set the doughnut down and grabbed the sack that held the cigarettes and kitchen matches.
The tenant came out of the building. Enveloped by the dim, yellow streetlights, he tramped across the expanse of parched, dying grass in the yard. Where in the hell did he go at night? The manager didn’t know, only that most nights he left at nine or ten, sometimes later, and was gone an hour or two, sometimes longer.
Pulling his baseball cap low across his forehead, Ronnie slid out of the BMW and started walking. His knees wobbled, but this was his moment of greatness. He licked the last flecks of doughnut glaze from his lips and strolled into the complex. Luck was with him. The long, interior hall was empty, and he hurried to the apartment door and opened it with the key the manager had provided.
The place was a disgusting wreck. The tenant was a hoarder. Magazines and newspapers piled up everywhere, several feet high in places. A natural tinderbox. Ronnie would hardly have to do anything. He had to hand in to Judge Miller. The guy picked his victims carefully.
The newspapers stacked on the living room coffee table beckoned. He set an ashtray next to them, and took the matches out of the sack. All the articles had said not to use an accelerant, only use materials available at the scene. Damn, the Internet was good. You could learn how to do anything.
Besides, he didn’t need an accelerant. The place was a fire waiting to happen. All it needed was a little help. He pulled a full garbage sack next to the couch and slid some newspapers under the ashtray.
The long, erect flame of the wooden match excited him. He lit a cigarette, the same brand the tenant smoked, and sucked on it until it glowed a bright red, then set it on the newspaper. The paper blackened, but didn’t catch.
This was harder than expected. Sweat gushed from his body, and he farted. There was no turning back, no running back to his BMW. If he ran, there would be no BMW. It would be repossessed. He sat on the couch and, hand trembling, lit another match and held it up to the stack of newspapers above the ashtray.
It didn’t catch.
He got so nervous he dropped the match into the box of matches. Flames shot up like a torch and set the newspaper stack on fire, then spread to the couch inches from his thigh. He bounded to his feet as the fire crawled up the back of the couch and down the frayed seam in the middle of the carpet. Everything was catching fire. The curtains. The garbage sacks. Flames all around. How beautiful.
As he walked slow and steady out of the apartment, an alarm sounded, but no one ran into the hall. Lucky again. Another alarm went off as he put the car in gear. Fire danced in the apartment window, ran up the side of the building to the second floor. People, some in bathrobes, ran outside. A baby cried. A siren approached.
When he was a few blocks away, he buried his nose in his shirt sleeve and breathed the smell of the smoke deep into his lungs. How exciting, like nothing he had ever experienced. The Hemisfair Arena and the other downtown landmarks slipped past. The elation brimmed inside him, and he pulled out his burnerphone. What an appropriate name for a phone.
“The eagle has landed,” he said.
“Time is still running out,” Judge Miller said in his gravelly voice. “The balloon notes are coming due soon. We need the beachcomber store that the old surfer owns. And we need your mother-in-law’s beach house.”
“I’ve tried everything on my mother-in-law.”
“Get creative. Turn up the heat.”
The line went dead. Ronnie’s elation faded. He picked up the Bavarian cream, chewed slowly to make it last, licked the glaze from his lips, and winced at the pain in his tooth. The surfer, Legend, was on the ropes, past due on all his bills. He would sell. But Mary had proven harder to swindle than he’d expected. He’d thought that once they’d gotten her to sell her house in town and move to Sunny Shores Retirement Villa it would be easy to get her to sell the beach house too. He’d even had the papers prepared, only to have her refuse to sign when they sat down in the plush leather chairs at the title company. What a humiliation for him.
Maybe she needed to see with her own eyes how much he had let the beach house fall into disrepair. Sunny Shores had periodic field trips, and one was planned for the beach. That would be a perfect opportunity for her to see what a wreck the place had become.
Even so, the old bat was stubborn. How could they turn up the heat even more?
The coolers. She lived to get drunk on those raspberry coolers. He would have Suzie refuse to get them for her any more. Suzie might balk, Mary being her mother, but he would not tolerate disobedience.
And he would call Sylvester Bonnet, the nursing home administrator. Ronnie would lie. He would say that Mary had started drinking heavily again, and she needed to be closely watched.
Mary wondered if she had misunderstood.
“No, I will not buy you a 4-pack of raspberry coolers,” Suzie repeated.
“You always buy me a 4-pack on Friday. You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to. Just drive me to the convenience store, and I’ll go in.”
Suzie shook her head, her big gold-hoop earrings and dyed platinum-blond hair swinging with it. “You have to act your age.”
Mary wanted to fire back that Suzie was the one who should act her age instead of trying, and failing, to look like she was still in her twenties. That was not going to get her a ride to the store, however. She looked at her votive candle of Jesus for guidance. It burned a bright yellow, the smell of the wax mingling with the smell of disinfectant that always lingered in the air at Sunny Shores Prison. “When I agreed to sell my house in town and move here, you said you would drive me to the store to get coolers. That was the deal.”
“Your mind isn’t working the way it used to, and the alcohol doesn’t help. You’re on more medications now.”
Her mind was working fine. She had read a news story about a woman who lived to 110 by drinking three Miller beers a day. That was the ticket. All her life, Mary had done what people wanted, what the Church expected, a regular plow horse, more like a mule, taking care of her parents, her kids, her cousins, the neighbors -- and her abusive husband. She had gotten lost in all that effort, never really understanding who she was. She didn’t want Suzie or anyone else to make up for it. All she wanted was to watch reality TV and drink a cooler. The possibilities were limitless. She could see what the housewives were up to, or the trashy celebrities.
She gripped the arms of her red-velour wingback chair, the only piece of furniture she had been able to bring to her tiny room. “You are breaking your promise.”
“You have to face the facts. You were an embarrassment. Before you moved here, you would sit on your porch and drink all the time.”
“I never started before five o’clock, and I was moderate. Only one cooler, maybe two on weekends.”
Suzie shook her head again. “More like two a night, sometimes three, and three on weekends, sometimes four. And on Sunday you started drinking early.”
“Yes, on Sunday afternoon after Mass, I started at four, sometimes three.”
“I have curbed my drinking. You get me the 4-pack on Friday. I have one cooler on Friday, one Saturday, one Sunday, one Monday, then I’m dry until Friday. It’s Friday, Suzie. Time for a cooler. That was the deal when I agreed to move here.”
“You’re on more medicines now. You might fall. A cracked hip would be no fun at all.”
Mary jumped from her chair and walked across the room like a tightrope walker, holding her arms out for balance, putting one foot in front of the other. “I can move as good as I always did.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. You think you can still do everything you used to do, and at times you can. That’s the dangerous part. But you are slipping mentally.” She motioned to the candle. “You light candles. What if you forget you’ve lit one, and accidentally set a fire?” She took a deep breath. “And look at your stubbornness in holding on to the beach house.”
She pivoted to face Suzie. “Is that what this is all about? You won’t get me a cooler unless I agree to sell the beach house?”
Suzie’s voice faltered. “Ronnie made you a good offer, and went to a lot of trouble to have the papers drawn up. You made him look like a fool at the title office. You wanting to hold on to it shows how your thought processes are not logical. The alcohol makes it worse. That house is not worth anything. It is falling apart. It is too far off the beach. All the growth is away from that area. The taxes and the insurance are killing you. We can’t rent it anymore because it’s such a wreck. And you haven’t spent a weekend there in years. It’s been vacant for months. Ronnie can use it as a tax write-off in our real estate business. It’s the only thing it’s good for.”
Ever since Suzie had met that fast-talking Ronnie there had been no reasoning with her. Mary had never understood what Suzie saw in him. He wasn’t handsome, and year by year he was turning into a round little toad, blending in with all the other people who needed to lose weight. He was the kind of person you couldn’t find in a crowd. You tended to look through him as if he weren’t there. His big charm, if you could call it a charm, was that he talked fast and talked big, and always had some cockamamie scheme to make a quick buck. A lot of his ideas sounded good, yet they seldom worked out.
“It was always my dream to live at the beach house.”
“I know, mom. But that doesn’t seem very realistic, does it?”
“I am not ready to give up my dream.”
“Sometimes, we have to understand that our dreams are not realistic.”
Mary wasn’t going to let herself get bamboozled by her son-in-law. She looked at her daughter straight in the eye. “Are you and Ronnie in financial trouble? Is that why you’re so desperate to get it?”
Suzie grabbed her keys from her purse, but her hand was shaking, and she dropped them. “We are not in trouble.” She snatched them off the floor and jumped to her feet, her face turning red, her hair and earrings flying wildly back and forth. “Don’t take my word for it. Sunny Shores is having a field trip to the beach. I have signed you up for it. See for yourself. That house is a wreck. The whole block is a disaster. It should all be bulldozed. You’re slipping, mom. And the drinking is part of the problem.”
Suzie ran from the room without saying goodbye.
It had seemed like a good idea to sell her house in town. Her old neighborhood had gotten so bad, no upright families like before, only drugs and welfare moms and bad men. And the house needed so much work. Plumbing, foundation, termites. But those problems were better than the slow death of Sunny Shores.
Outside in the hall, tennis shoes squeaked past on the linoleum floor, moving fast, followed by even faster high heels. A car roared down the street. The whole world was in motion, yet she was stuck. The flame in the candle illuminated the image of Jesus, formed a halo around His head. It was a sign to take control of her life.
She pulled out her photo album, flipped through it to the storage pocket on the back cover where she hid money. She had 80 dollars in 5s and 10s. That would buy quite a few 4-packs. She took a 10 and put the rest back.
She felt something in the bottom of the pocket.
One to Suzie and Ronnie’s front door, the other to his file cabinet.
Suzie had given them to her after she and Ronnie had a fight. The cabinet holds all his secrets, her daughter had told her. Please hold onto it for me in case things get really bad.
They got over their spat and hopped a plane for Hawaii, putting the whole bill on a credit card. Suzie was all smiles when she returned, but she had never asked for the keys back, never mentioned them again. They had been in the album ever since. Mary hadn’t thought of them in years.
The metal felt cool, the cuts and tip sharp the way new keys feel. She put them back in the pocket and checked herself in the mirror, smoothing out her green floral dress, one she had owned for forty years, and which still fit perfectly. People stopped taking care of themselves when they got old. They quit dressing nicely, they quit applying make-up. Some even stopped bathing and began to have that unmistakable old-person smell. She had no intention of letting herself get that way. Even at her age, the men stared, and she enjoyed the attention. She dug through her jewelry box and found a pendant the same shade of green as her dress. Perfect. Fashion was like milk. It spoiled. You always had to have something fresh, and if you couldn’t buy something new, then you had to put things together in a fresh way. Feeling sexy, she put on her black cloche hat and sauntered out of her room.
A chilling sight greeted her. The warden, Sylvester Bonnet, stood at the end of the hall. She had never liked him because he looked a lot like Ronnie, only fatter and more distinctly ugly with a double chin. A tall orderly named Sean stood next to him, the two of them blocking her path.
“How are you today, Mary?” Bonnet asked when she reached them.
He had never asked how she was. “I’m fine.”
“What are you doing?”
He had never asked what she was doing. “Getting a little air.”
“So nicely dressed? Where are you going?”
“Out to the garden.”
She stepped past them and continued on to the garden, which was enclosed by shrubs and a fence. She squeezed through a tiny gap between a post and an oleander, something only someone thin and agile could do, taking care that nothing snagged her dress or hat, and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
The bright, yellow sun danced in her eyes. Cars zipped past so close they left a wake of exhaust and wind. She clutched her handbag, passed medical offices. Internal medicine, Ophthalmology, Physical Therapy, minor emergency center, a day surgery center, and in the distance, shimmering in the heat like an oasis, the convenience store.
There were so many alcohol choices. Floor to ceiling. Cans, bottles, single beers, six packs, exotic beers in dark bottles, malt liquors. So many flavors of coolers. They weren’t called “wine coolers” any more. They were “flavored malt coolers.” Why couldn’t they have stuck with the old name? Why did the world have to keep changing?
Imagining the warm glow she got from drinking even half a bottle, she wondered if she should stick with Raspberry, or strike out into bold, new territory like berry or navel. There was even a variety pack. Better safe than sorry. She pulled a Raspberry from the shelf as well as a variety pack. Her mini-fridge would accommodate two 4-packs.
A construction worker, his underwear showing because of his saggy jeans, stood in front of her with a 24-pack of beer. A boy and a girl in line behind her played with their cellphones, never talking to each other. The clerk had a stud earring in his left lobe and tattoos of skulls on his wrist. What was the world coming to?
The heat bore down on her as she walked back to her room, but her legs felt strong, and her mind was working just fine. She knew she had made a terrible mistake moving to Sunny Shores. She had to escape. How would she do it? Maybe some of the residents would help.
Ed sat in his room at Sunny Shores and looked out his window. Having all the time in the world, while simultaneously having very little at all, he spent his days studying the view and had become intimately familiar with every tree and bush, every crack in the sidewalk, and all the alley cats that sunned themselves in the afternoons. Likewise, he had developed elaborate mythologies about the people who drove by on a regular basis. A thin gray man in a red Corvette was a world-renowned brain surgeon. A petite young woman in a rusting Chrysler Neon was a single mom working two jobs. A bearded man in a Ford pick-up truck was a construction worker whose elderly mother was an Alzheimer’s patient in the Sunny Shores Memory Unit.
Despite his active mind, he was trapped. What a bad piece of luck that he had barreled into the living room of his next-door neighbor when his bionic knee didn’t work right. Could have happened to anyone. The neighbor had it in for him after he shot her cat with a BB-gun. The cat had been climbing over his fence and crapping in his yard for months. He had complained -- in the politest possible manner -- many times, but she hadn’t done anything. He hadn’t meant to hit the cat. He had only meant to scare it. Thankfully, it hadn’t been hurt permanently, only ended up with a little tic. But the police took his BB-gun. And when he barreled into her house, no one believed it was an accident. Next stop Sunny Shores Prison for the Elderly.
His son, Brandon, eased around the corner in his leased Mercedes, enough speed, but not too much, never veering outside the lane markers, never taking a risk. He came every Friday right after work even though they never had much to say to each other. Hell, it was mostly Ed’s fault. He had favored his two daughters. The reason he disliked his son, he had come to realize, was that Ed, except for picking up that BB-gun in an uncharacteristic moment of unchecked pique, wasn’t a risk-taker either.
Brandon’s wingtips clomped down the linoleum in the hall and stopped, probably because Brandon was taking a deep breath before he faced his crotchety old dad. Ed stood. Apart from the painful knee, he felt not that much different than when he was in high school. That was the funny thing about aging. You didn’t feel old a lot of the time. It was only when you saw yourself in the mirror that you realized what had happened to you.
“Hello, dad, how are you?” Brandon asked when he stepped into the room, a big smile on his face.
“I feel great. I’ve started physical therapy again you know, and I feel like I could run some laps.”
“That’s great, dad.” He pushed the walker up to Ed. “Let’s get on down for supper.”
“I don’t want the walker. I’m getting rid of it. And I don’t want to go down to the hall for supper. I want to go out to eat. I’ll use the Visa card.”
“You should only use the card for the grocery and the Walmart. I monitor it online. You need to be cautious with it.”
“I want to get the hell out of this place. I want to go to a steakhouse. I want to go to that Greek place where they grill the steaks right there in front of you.”
“That’s not a good idea. We have to worry about your sodium intake, and you might fall. You fell the last time we went out.”
“That was nothing. My knee is better. I need a trip to the beach. Smell the salt air and stretch my legs. Let’s go to the beach. Give my knee a little work out. Take a long walk. Hey, let’s get a hamburger and shake at that little hole-in-the-wall on the beach. That place we used to stop at after we went fishing. Remember those burgers? Nice and greasy. Best tasting things in the world.”
Brandon’s face filled with pain. “That place closed years ago.”
Ed’s knee wobbled underneath him. “No. It can’t be.”
His voice came out apologetic. “Yeah, the building got torn down. But you know what? Sunny Shores is going to have a field trip to the beach. That should be fun for you. I’ll sign you up. Okay?”
“Sure, why not.”
“Great. Come on, dad, let’s go to the dining room. Take the walker.”
“No, I’m done with that. I can walk.”
Brandon pushed it up to him. “Go ahead and take it.”
“I don’t want to.”
Feeling bold, Ed imagined he was a boy again, and he and his friends were playing football in the vacant lot near his house. He wasn’t big, but he was quick, and he scooted around Brandon. Brandon looked surprised, and Ed didn’t waste time. He shot out the door and down the hall.
The wingtips clomped after him in hot pursuit. “Dad, come back.”
Ed glanced back. His son pushed the walker, its wheels wobbling on the linoleum. “What is this, Brandon? The chariot race in Ben Hur?”
“Aw, Jesus, dad, why don’t you stop?”
“Never. I want to go to the beach. I want to smell the salt air.” Ed knew he would pay later. The knee would hurt, but for the moment he laughed at the shocked expression on his son’s face.
“You’re going to get hurt.”
The door to a room ahead of them opened. An orderly came out with a tray and froze in the middle of the hall when he saw them, his round mouth falling open. Ed raced around him, and Brandon followed close behind.
“Dad, please, someone’s going to get hurt!”
“You’ll never catch me!”
With each step Ed felt stronger and ran faster. He burst out of the hall into the foyer. Everyone turned to look, the receptionist, a visiting family, an orderly pushing a food cart, all the residents in the dining room.
A startled old man pushing a walker was dead ahead, the two of them on a collision course, but that was no problem for the star running back. He turned sharply and wove his way through a block of easy chairs. Brandon nearly ran into the old man, swerved around him at the last second and collided with the orderly pushing the food cart. Chicken breasts and boiled potatoes clattered to the ground along with two frothy bowls of white soup, which splashed everywhere, including onto Brandon.
There were limitations to risk-taking, Ed realized as his fake knee wouldn’t turn when he cleared the block of easy chairs. His inertia carried him straight toward the statue of Jesus in front of the dining tables. His eyes opened wide.
“Dad!” his son yelled.
Sylvester Bonnet, stepped out of his office at that moment, watched aghast as Ed raced toward his collision with Jesus.
At the last second Ed swerved, bumping the edge of the statue, which wobbled on its base. Brandon and Bonnet ran to it, their arms outstretched, and caught it before it fell to the ground.
Ed reached his table, grabbed his chair to stop himself, and plopped down. Across the aisle from his table Mary was already seated at her table. She was beautiful, the heartthrob of Sunny Shores. He worshiped her from afar, never daring speak to her. Thin and attractive, her green dress tight in all the right spots, she was full of purpose and vigor. No one could replace his wife, but she excited him.
“Good afternoon, Mary,” he said, feeling courageous enough to talk to her after his adventure.
She seemed surprised by his greeting, but answered without hesitation. “Good afternoon, Ed.”
“You look stunning in that green dress.”
“Thank you, Ed.”
Brandon, his body stiff with anger, wiped the soup from his suit with his handkerchief. Everyone stared, their knives and forks frozen in mid-air. Then, chuckles rippled through the dining room, finally erupting into uproarious laughter, all the old faces ecstatic.
Ed looked at Mary. She smiled at him. Her eyes twinkled. Was she going on the field trip to the beach? Maybe they could sit together.
The only thing that bothered him about her was that she crossed herself all the time, and once when he was passing her room, she was lighting religious candles and looked up to say something to him. Worried she was about to proselytize, he had scurried off as fast as his knee would go. He hated churches, had hated then all his life, every single one of them. He was an atheist.
Even so, he was smitten. She kept smiling. What was the Catholic girl thinking? He made a decision. If he had the opportunity to do something risky – like dating Mary – he would do it .