Friday, October 27, 2006

Paradise Emporium

C. L. Frost

This article was included in the Storyblogging carnival LVII.

When Mr. and Mrs. Jackson first read the ad, they shook their gray heads in mutual disbelief.

"Too good to be true," Mr. Jackson croaked.

"The schemes these advertisers come up with," Mrs. Jackson groaned. The newspaper shook in her hands as she moved it to a distance from which she could read the tiny print through her bifocals. "You have to admire their cleverness. Or maybe, their audacity."

Paradise Emporium picture
Image by C. L. Frost

Mr. Jackson nodded as he swallowed his morning pills - a scored orange tablet, two green and white capsules and a pale blue lozenge - with a mouthful of decaffeinated, artificially sweetened coffee. The ad reminded him of those he'd read inside matchbook covers and on the back of comic books in his boyhood. It reminded Mrs. Jackson of those Elixirs of Everything, secret formulas guaranteed to cure heart-ache and aging, sold in the housekeeping magazines that her mother had read for decades; newer magic potions, those offered nowadays, added "lost medicines of the Incas" and "remedies derived from recently discovered esoteric Hindu teachings" to the concoction. She cleared the phlegm from her throat and began to read:

"Deal of the Century! First annual Gray Sale, for senior citizens only. Amazing discounts! Lazy-Boy loungers with kid leather upholstery, only $25. Big screen TVs, only $30. Golf carts, only $10. Do you live on a fixed income? Trouble affording that computer you want to buy your grandson? That piano for your granddaughter? New laptops only $50. Baby grands, and a year of free music lessons, only $100. Want to help your daughter remodel her kitchen? Refrigerators, all sizes and colors, just $50; ranges only $40. Everything must go, all prices slashed. First 300 shoppers win a free Caribbean cruise, two weeks in January aboard the Merit Fleet's premier luxury liner. First 500 win a free hot tub, guaranteed to sooth aching joints. Merchandise limited; come early before inventory's gone. Sale one day only - Saturday, September 1st, 10 AM - 8 PM at the Paradise Emporium on Rte 8 at the Elmsbury fair grounds."

Mr. Jackson reached for the paper and squinted at the miniscule, faint print that his wife couldn't see.

"Discounts are made possible by funding from the federal and state governments," he read aloud. "Plus a long line of insurance companies." He paused. "I wonder what the catch is."

"Some trick, for sure." Mrs. Jackson licked her parched lips and sipped tea to wet her mouth before continuing. "We'll get in there and find bargain basement clothes with designer labels - look-alikes until you examine the seams, which are already unraveling. Or big boxes of cereal that look like they could feed an army, but with hardly enough inside to fill a baby's breakfast bowl. If there's a baby grand, it'll probably be made out of plastic and small enough to fit in a dollhouse. The golf cart'll have torn sides and rusty wheels - dragged there straight from the city dump. Probably another scam to fleece us old biddies. Aren't we all dim witted? Isn't everyone with wrinkles and bad knees senile? An easy mark? Don't we all drool over our pudding, dribble Ensure over our bibs and wear adult diapers?"

Mr. Jackson nodded as he placed a red check mark in the upper left corner of the calendar box for Wednesday, to indicate that he'd taken all his morning medications.

"And I never heard of altruistic insurance companies," he muttered. "But, we have a few days until the sale; maybe enough time to find out what really lies behind that ad."

When Mr. and Mrs. Jackson left the house to investigate, they found that all the senior citizens were talking about the sale. Maxine Stritch, the bony seventy-five year old neighbor who lovingly weeded her garden daily despite her arthritis, seemed to bounce on tip-toes; excitement had sucked the pain out of those knobby joints. Anna Difrancesco, the baker's widow, gestured enthusiastically; her plump but agile hands drew arabesques in the air. Tom O'Toole, raconteur and retired electrician, spoke faster and faster, until he began wheezing and perspiration beaded on his reddening scalp.

"The Gray Sale? Of course I'm going!" exclaimed Maxine. "I'm getting there early, 6 AM. Maybe 5 AM, with a fat pillow and a blanket to camp out in front of the door. I want to be one of the lucky three hundred, spend winter basking under the hot Bermuda sun. And my grandchildren want their own computer, not just scheduled time on their parents' machine; they keep asking for one, but you know how much you can buy on a school teacher's pension and social security. So, this is a windfall - if I can beat the lines."

"It's the deal of the century!" Anna's large brown eyes sparkled like those of a restless adolescent in love. "Haven't you seen all the commercials? Every fifteen minutes; they've been advertising for weeks. Just one dollar gets you a raffle ticket for a Cadillac - straight out of the factory, shiny new, any color you want. And they're giving away two hundred. Two hundred! Winners'll be announced just before closing, and I'll be in there, waiting; I'm driving out of there in a sparkling new, hot pink Money-Mobile. Even if I don't win -" She paused to pat her thick gray hair into place. "Everyone always laughed at me for keeping Alfie's truck, the one he used for delivering breads and cakes. 'What's a widow-lady going to do with that big clunker?' they wanted to know. Well, come Saturday, they won't be wondering any more. With everything selling cheaper than week-old pumpernickel, I'll be pulling every credit card out of my purse and thanking the gods for plastic money. Don't need it this year? I might need it next year. Not sure if I can use it? One of my kids or grandkids might use it, and like it for a gift. No excuse not to buy, and that truck holds a lot of stuff. If they sell big TVs and Lazy-Boy Loungers with suede cushions, I'll be storing a new living room in there. Not a Junk-mobile - now it's my treasure-mobile."

"Of course it's real!" laughed Tom. "My son, the one in city council, says they've been planning this for months. Most of the nursing homes are renting vans to take their residents to the event; some didn't want to at first - with all the liability issues, what if Joe Nasty's Grandma gets trampled by the crowds? - but the residents got too excited when they heard about what was coming, demanded to go and threatened to beat the administrators with their canes if they were kept in. The big city's chartered special buses to drive us golden oldies to the sale; the city papers have been advertising Paradise Emporium for almost a year. Buses with fat velvet cushions and seats that recline, for us oldsters with bad backs. Pick-up at our own front door, if you so request. A nurse on every bus, just in case. And other cities and towns, every one that's less than a hundred miles from the fairgrounds, has plans for transporting its seniors."

Tom paused to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his shiny pink scalp; then, grinning like an aging leprechaun, he inhaled deeply.

"On September 1st," he mused, "Hundreds of buses, all filled with grannies and grandpas wanting to shout a Hip-hip-Hooray camp cheer, will speed down Route eight. Pity any policeman who dares to stop one of those buses! The passengers might beat that cop bloody with their walkers, strangle him with their Foley catheter tubes, sting him with the insulin needles they carry concealed in jacket pockets. Folks'll get feisty, even the sick ones; don't keep us from the Mall-of-all-malls! And can you imagine the evening headlines? 'Cop attacked by mob of seniors, who behave just like teenage hooligans.' Might be the start of a new movement; we might see laws describing canes and catheters as lethal weapons."

That day and the next, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson toured the town, speaking to old people whom they knew already and old people who were strangers. They drove to the Senior Activity Center in the long, wide Ford they'd bought during an era when they thought they'd live forever; with many replaced parts, the lovingly waxed, lemon-yellow car was almost as old as their marriage. They entered Sam's Deli, favored by seniors because it was owned by one capable man as old as themselves and staffed by family members who knew every customer's name: while slicing cheese or spreading lox across warm bagels, Sam would chat about politics or the marital problems of a grandson who lived on the other coast. They strolled into Tony's Foods, the last individually owned grocery in an age of chain supermarkets filled with glaring fluorescent light and clerks trained to smile robotically through their indifference; at Tony's, the amber light softened craggy profiles and treated old eyes gently, and the proprietor's warm welcome made even an old person feel that he was still human, not yet an invisible ghost.

Sam's Deli and Tony's Foods would be closed on Saturday; Sam, Tony, and most of their patrons planned to spend the whole day at Paradise Emporium. Sam even proposed making September 1st a holiday, National Geriatric Day, to be celebrated with parades of costumed marchers wearing masks of wrinkled faces with sagging jowls and thin lips; the marchers might dance nimbly around walkers and twirl canes like batons while high school bands with off-key tubas played favorite old tunes.

"Ideally," Sam winked at Mrs. Jackson, "The band would play perfectly. But, have you ever heard a high school band with all the horns on key? Doesn't exist! So, we soothe our nerves, jittery from all that bad playing, with gourmet feasts cooked without salt and entirely with low cholesterol, antioxidant-rich foods. Sorry, none of my prime Mozzarella on Old Age Day!"

Tony glanced at the personally stocked shelves in his store and shrugged.

"I'd close the shop anyway," he said as he fixed price labels to cans of tomato soup. "Want to get Timmy that bike he's been asking for all year; they're selling ten-speeders for thirty bucks. But who'd come here anyway, even if I kept the place open? No one - not when they're offering a free all-you-can-eat lobster buffet at five, and a big band playing Glenn Miller's greatest hits. Lobster! I haven't tasted it in years; buying it is like buying diamonds. So I'll be there all day, mouth watering."

Early each evening, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson returned home exhausted from their rounds of listening to old people enthuse about the Sale-to-beat-all-Sales at the Paradise Emporium; no one asked why the government and insurance companies would treat the elderly so charitably. Mrs. Jackson called her friends from the Senior Activity Center. Mr. Jackson called his poker buddies - five limping, sometimes incontinent, stiff-jointed but sharp-eyed men who formed his "circle of curmudgeons".

"Everyone else is going," Mrs. Jackson said on Friday night, as she ladled rice and peas onto her plate. "I usually don't like crowds, but I wouldn't want to miss a great event."

Mr. Jackson placed a green check mark in the lower left corner of the calendar's Friday box, indicating that he'd taken the scored orange tablet, the crimson capsule, the two green and white capsules and the huge tan pill prescribed for dinnertime; the tan pill always scratched his throat, stuck in his esophagus and squeezed into his stomach only after several gulps of water. He added a check mark to the lower right corner, indicating that his wife had also taken her evening medication.

"Jeff - the guy with the colostomy bag," he began hoarsely, "Jeff's excited about the sale; he's going with his sister, who's staying at his place overnight and drove six hours to get to the event. Ned, the one with gout who sees through my poker face every time and says that I'm too bad a liar to ever play at real poker; penny poker's it for me, as high as I'll go. Well, Ned thinks that the politicians recognize how many people in this country are over 65; we're a big voting block, can make or break a candidate. So, the politicians want to get on our good side. 'Make nice to the seniors,' they say, 'If you want to keep our seat in congress.' So, we're right to question the motives behind this Paradise Emporium. They're not really giving charity; they expect us to repay them at the ballot box. But, that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy the spectacle and capitalize on a few bargains."

Mrs. Jackson crushed a pea under her fork and watched the pulpy green interior ooze up between the prongs.

"It's probably just my overly cautious nature that makes me uneasy," she said, and reached for her teacup. "Maybe I'm too skeptical, too conservative. Sometimes you have to trust people and take risks to get the most out of life."

"So true," Mr. Jackson mumbled, then swallowed his mouthful of rice. "I had my doubts too. Big doubts. But if the curmudgeons are eager? Some of those guys wouldn't trust a little kid peddling Girl Scout cookies; they act as though everyone's trying to sell them land on the moon. If they don't sense anything wrong, neither should I. Any unease is just my suspicious nature acting up." He cleared his throat and spoke more loudly. "So, what time tomorrow do we leave for Paradise?"

Mrs. Jackson shrugged.

"Whenever," she sighed. "When we've finished breakfast, had our warm showers and feel ready. No reason to get up early for the mad rush; we need our sleep. Besides, where would we put a hot tub?"

The next morning, after a breakfast of oatmeal and Ovaltine, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson drove under a bright, high sun to the Elmsbury fairgrounds. Yellow police tape and sawhorses blocked off roads. Filled parking lots gleamed as metal reflected the white sunlight; to Mrs. Jackson, the snugly aligned cars resembled nesting beetles. A policeman stopped the yellow Ford and directed the Jacksons to a lot three miles away; a shuttle bus drove them back to the fairgrounds and deposited them at the end of the line of people awaiting entry into Paradise Emporium.

"It's a tent!" Mrs. Jackson exclaimed when she saw the white fabric arced between steel poles and rigging. "It looks like a series of snowy mountains. And the line - there must be five hundred people between here and the entrance."

Mr. Jackson sighed as he considered the long wait ahead of him, pulled a tube from his pocket, rolled up his trousers and rubbed analgesic cream onto his knees. Alerted by the whiff of menthol, Mrs. Jackson reached for the tube, then rubbed the ointment into her lower back. A monitor in white trousers and a navy jacket stitched with gold brocade on the cuffs and pockets, one of at least fifty patrolling the grounds, sniffed, strode briskly to a ramp, then rolled two plushly cushioned chairs towards the newcomers.

"We want you to be comfortable," the monitor said as he patiently helped Mr. and Mrs. Jackson into chairs. "No reason to strain those joints while you wait."

A cheery hostess pushed her cart parallel with the line, stopped before the Jacksons and offered to pour them glasses of cider, bottled water, sugar-free lemonade, or iced tea.

"We also have finger sandwiches and three kinds of soup, all cooked with low cholesterol products, if you get hungry." The hostess, as slender and professional as an airline attendant, smiled at the Jacksons. "When the line moves forward, you can stand up and push your chair; it has wheels. But if you're tired, you can flip this switch and activate the motor; you can navigate by pushing this lever, let the chair roll you forward and do all the work. It doesn't move very fast, so you won't bump into anything. Besides, a monitor's always watching; one of us will be there if you look like you're going to hurt yourself. If you need anything, if you need something to drink or need to use one of our bathrooms, just push this big button. A monitor will see the blinking lights on the sides of your chair and come to help you. Any questions?"

Mrs. Jackson shook her head. Mr. Jackson activated the motor, let the chair wheel him back a foot, then returned to his original position; a light nudge moved the lever.

"I wouldn't mind having a chair like this at home," he marveled as he sipped spicy warm cider. "And if I turn this knob, the bottom slides out and I get a foot-rest; I can keep turning to raise and lower my legs. The people who organized this event understand how old feet need to be propped up."

Mrs. Jackson let Seltzer water bubble over and clean her tongue. Overhead, a lone cloud floated nonchalantly in the crayon-box blue of one of late summer's perfect days. Sunlight caressed her, warm but not hot; breezes cooled, but didn't chill, her. An ambulance idled silently fifty yards away, medical care available for anyone who needed it. The door of one of the many Porta-potties opened and a uniformed monitor helped a hunched woman back to her seat. Meticulously coifed hedges, with not a branch out of place, lined the fairgrounds' perimeter. Closely cropped grass extended as far as she could see, like a green carpet; Mrs. Jackson couldn't smell pollen or the pungent aroma of fresh lawn clippings. The day was just right.

"Yes, they planned well, thought of everything," Mrs. Jackson approved. "I never expected refreshments or seating. At least we'll be comfortable, even if the line's bad."

A scrawny man, just ahead of the couple in line, rotated his chair to face them.

"You think this line's bad? You should have been here at 5 AM," he grunted. "We're the last stragglers. One of the caterers told me that people started arriving before midnight; by 5 AM, the line was four miles long and spiraled around the tents eleven times. But, at least the Paradise staff was prepared. The monitors were already out here, offering people chairs and handing out blankets to anyone who wanted to sleep." He paused and glanced down apologetically. "Sorry for not introducing myself; you'd think that I left my manners back in the office when I retired. I'm Dan. Glad to meet you, it's always good to meet someone in the line to Paradise."

The hostess stopped her cart beside a plump woman who offered to show her pictures of the grandchildren; she examined the frayed photos and praised each. The grandchildren were all so beautiful and charming, had faces that could be on TV, obviously made Grandma proud; the hostess sang out her praises rhythmically, as though energetically reciting a mantra. Mrs. Jackson unzipped her purse; the snapshots of her own grandchildren, tea stained and years out of date, lay at the bottom of the bag, under the pill jars, brush, comb, compact mirror and pounds of spare change. Mr. Jackson wedged his hand into his pocket, feeling for the wallet where he stored his driving license, social security card, family photos and other valuable documents in plastic compartments.

"They didn't need to call in police reinforcements until 10, when the place opened for business," the round-faced grandmother suddenly trilled. Finished with displaying her photos, she'd swiveled her chair to face the Jacksons; she drank her lemonade quickly and relaxed into her cushions. "A few people tried to cut through the tent, unsuccessfully because the fabric's so strong, but most people waited patiently through the night and early morning. Napped, played cards with the people near them, embroidered, wrote letters; all peaceful and quiet, what you'd expect from a bunch without much fuel left in them."

The woman pushed down the white corner of a snapshot that poked up above a rim of fabric, then patted her pocket to be sure that all her grandchildren were safely in place.

"But, when the flaps opened," she continued, "A crowd stampeded forward. Rushed, as much as they could rush. Maybe only 25 or 30 troublemakers, but twenty-five's enough to bring in the cops. I don't know where those folk found the energy, they must have ignored their bad tickers and all the doctors' warnings. An amputee got pushed to the ground; one man charged at the ambulance crew with his wife's knitting needles when they cut in front of him. A woman from far back in the line stormed away, then tried to ram her car through the side of the tent fifteen minutes later. She sat very low in the driver's seat, her head barely visible through the side window; a man fainted when the hell-car sped forward, seemingly driven by its own will."

Mr. Jackson, noticing that the plump lady wore sunglasses, rubbed his own eyes, which teared in bright light.

"Typical crowd behavior," he sighed, then turned to his wife. "The tent makes sense - easy to put up and take down. How many people do you think it holds?"

Mrs. Jackson shrugged.

"It could hold several football stadiums," Dan replied. "That's what? - thirty thousand people? A hundred thousand? Four, maybe six, miles of people have snaked their way in."

"And no one's come out," the round-faced woman added.

"No one's left," Dan agreed. "We'd see them. That dark opening at the far left, that's the exit. But no one's come through there, not even a janitor."

Mr. Jackson didn't ask the man how he'd distinguish an exiting customer from a janitor. He didn't ask why none of the shoppers had left yet; the bargain hunters would be trapped inside by their own greed. Instead, he drew circles in the air with the toe of his raised shoe and tried to resign himself to waiting. Mrs. Jackson shifted the heavy purse on her lap from her right thigh to the left, then back to the right; the mounds of coins clinked as they thudded from side to side and the stiff vinyl edges dug into her skin.

"A shame that we didn't bring magazines," Mrs. Jackson said after a while.

"A shame that we don't have a deck of cards. Nothing better than a game, penny ante, to help you get rid of those coins at the bottom of your purse; you wouldn't have to jingle whenever you move," Mr. Jackson replied.

The two folded their arms across their chests and gazed ahead, vision blurred and thoughts slowing as they made ready for a long wait.

"No more allowed inside for now, the tent is full," a monitor, flanked by a burly policeman, announced into a microphone. "We sincerely apologize to all of you, who've been waiting so patiently. We hope to admit many more of you, all of you eventually, as soon as some shoppers leave. As a consolation prize, we offer all of you a choice of free--"

Several from the front of the line stood abruptly and marched towards the tent; others, limping and shuffling behind them, yammered protests.

"Stand back!" The cop barked and blew his whistle "Wait here or come back in three hours!" Seeing that the old people wouldn't obey, he retreated a step and frantically beckoned to his fellow officers. Five policemen silently moved into guard position between the crowd and the tent. A German Shepherd bounded towards the entrance, its taut muscles rippling; a cop gasped to keep up, gripping the leash in one fist while clutching at the holstered gun that his jiggling belly threatened to dislodge.

"Three hours!"

"You keep us waiting all this time, and then you turn us away?"

"And in this hot sun! It may seem balmy to you, but 'balmy' becomes hot when you wait and get nothing!"

"I thought this operation was organized. What's with you people?"

Many in the crowd grumbled and muttered reedy curses: Damn them, they can't just toss us out like bags of rotting old garbage! But what can we expect, isn't it always like this for us, the dispensable ones, the faceless leftovers? Some hissed; the most energetic hollered. A woman shrieked and hurled a bottle of Aspirin at the policeman; another kicked him with the steel-reinforced instep of her orthopedic shoe and scratched at his face with brittle nails. A whistle screeched; a dropped radio crackled static under pounding heels. As more police rushed forward, old men brandished metal walkers and swung their canes.

"Who are the old farts now?" a raspy tenor yelled. "You're the old farts - full of hot air promises! Chasing us away after we've stood here all this time. And with our heart conditions and asthma? How fair is that, you good-for-nothing windbags, to let us risk our health and then get nothing in return"

"You'll get in, just a little later. Lets not start a riot here, a little extra time in line isn't worth a riot," the monitor intoned in a velvety baritone. "We'd let you all in now. But we can't. It's a matter of safety codes; regulations limit how many can occupy the tent at one time, and we have to obey the law." He glanced nervously at the cop beside him, a lanky redhead this time, then continued in a slow voice as rich and soothing as molasses. "I know that regulations don't mean much when you've been waiting so long, when you're tired, disappointed and furious. I've been in your situation - not for something as big as this, but for something that was very big for me - and I felt like ripping the tongue out of the manager who made me wait: I wanted to skin him alive. So, believe me, I know what you're feeling. No, we can't give you back the time you've lost to waiting. But, perhaps, we can offer you proof that our apologies are sincere. Our hostesses stand ready to pour you Champagne, scotch, gin, red wines and beer; they'll also be serving crab salad and shrimp cocktails, originally intended for the buffet, to help you through your hunger. And one of our musicians, a virtuoso violinist, has agreed to leave the tent and perform especially for you - any tune, a classical piece or a love song from your honeymoon days, just ask and he'll play what you desire."

The angry old people stopped, looked at each other, shrugged and nodded, and began trudging back to their chairs; drained by their outburst, they shuffled more slowly and paused more often to lean into their canes and catch their breath.

"They have a point…about regulations," one stooped man muttered between gasps for air. He inhaled deliberately, wheezed out a cough, then wiped the sweat from his ruddy cheeks. "When I was a carpenter…everything was codes….Had to obey the codes…or get run out of business."

A plump woman, who still bothered to dye her hair, spoke, then glanced up at her husband, then continued speaking as she fixed her gaze on the ground in front of her.

"Champagne's not so shabby," she reassured. "You have to admit, they're doing their best to make a bit of bad luck as pleasant for us as possible. And a violinist especially for us! Maybe we can get him to play that Italian love song we liked so much when we were courting; I wish I could remember the name, but if we hum a few bars, he'll probably know which song we want. Just thinking about it takes me back, makes me feel like I could dance across the floor with my skirt whirling and the pearls swaying back and forth across my chest."

The husband grunted.

"Violins don't make me feel young again." His fingers rose to a plastic button in his right ear. "Don't hear the high notes like I used to. But crabmeat - that's special by itself; how much does it cost at the store, when they even bother to stock it? I guess the Paradise people do have something for everyone, even during an emergency."

The old people sank back into their motorized chairs. Some chatted with those waiting near them, the first strangers they'd befriended in years. Some merely closed their eyes, hoping to absorb energy from the warm, restorative sunlight.

"Don't let them fool you, even if they look peaceful now," a cop stationed at the back of the line warned an officer near him. "They're like old cats - a bit slower, but they still have claws and teeth. Old cats can be cranky and unpredictable. And some of them don't know they're winded and creaky until after they've attacked."

Mrs. Jackson turned to her husband.

"We don't really want to wait around, do we? It's almost two-thirty; Mike's coming at three. We don't want to keep him waiting, do we? Not when he's going off to college in a week; we might not see him again for months."

Mr. Jackson shook his head; he, too, would miss his youngest grandson.

As the couple strolled south, hoping to meet a bus that would drive them to their car, an inconspicuous man in an attic two blocks away pushed a button.

"Mission DebtKill complete," he muttered into a phone as the first flames shot up and shock waves from the explosion knocked the Simpsons to the ground.

In a room far away, government officials and CEOs heard the message over a speakerphone and sighed in collective relief. From this, and thirty other Paradise Emporium sites scattered throughout the country, the same words were broadcast: Mission DebtKill complete.

"So, how many do you think we got?" the director of military operations asked. "I know that we'll have to wait for a body count, plus missing person reports where the remains are too charred to be recognizably human. But, as a best guess - a few million?"

"Whatever, it's a big step forward in debt reduction," a CEO asserted. "Big savings for everyone in the long run. We'd have to pay out life insurance premiums anyway, but at least we can bypass all the health insurance payouts. Not to mention the savings for the Medicare and Social Security people. Maybe we missed ten or twenty percent of them, mainly the ones who are ready to die anyway or a few who are too rich to be lured out by anything - but they're not the ones who'd cost us in the future."

The men in that room raised glasses of champagne in a toast to the success of their plan.

In a hospital near the Elmsbury fairgrounds, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson winced as ER doctors treated their superficial burns and pulled metal splinters from their skin. Both remembered only a sudden roar and a blast of heat.

"You suffered mild concussions," the doctor told them. "But you're both very, very lucky. The explosion killed everyone in that tent, and most of the people near it; now there's just a big crater in the ground where it stood. If you hadn't already walked quite a distance away, you'd have been killed too."

"It's on all the news stations," a nurse fretted. "Maybe fifty thousand killed in that explosion. And not just here - also near Atlanta, near Dallas, near San Francisco. Someone targeted all thirty Paradise Emporium tents; all the sales were scheduled for today, and all the tents exploded when they were filled with shoppers. The government's blaming terrorists."

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, the doctor and the nurse gazed solemnly at one of the televisions mounted in the ER and strained to hear the reporter over the din. Probable terrorist attack….We know where the terrorists come from, even if no one can prove their identity; in a country at war, everyone knows who the terrorists are….In outrage, the nation mourns this slaughter of its esteemed elders.

Mrs. Jackson cringed as she imagined Maxine and Anna hunched over booths, examining potted saplings and glittering trinkets seconds before the detonation. Maybe Maxine had tripped in her garden and been kept away by a limp. Maybe Anna couldn't start the Junk-mobile, and missed the explosion while waiting for a mechanic to adjust the carburetor. Maybe an asthma attack had kept Tom O'Toole home. But, as a lifelong realist, Mrs. Jackson didn't sustain herself on hope; she tallied up the odds and guessed at what was probable. Suddenly, the red patches on her skin felt very raw and hot.

"I was uneasy about that emporium," Mr. Jackson stammered as they walked out of the hospital. "Maybe suspicious for the wrong reasons. But terrorists bombed the place. Terrorists! I was right to feel uncomfortable."

Mrs. Jackson nodded.

As they drove past the closed door of Tony's Foods and the dark windows of Sam's Deli, Mr. Jackson felt his stomach lurch. He imagined the curmudgeons picking over fishing reels and examining decks of cards with a magnifying glass while debating whether or not to buy. At home, he dialed each number from his list, then listened to jarring rings or to a gruff voice from the dead asking him to leave a message.

"It's just you and me now," Mrs. Jackson said after a long silence at dinner, as though reading her husband's thoughts. Both pushed cooling spaghetti listlessly across their plates, then dumped the uneaten meal in the garbage.

A week later, the town held a memorial for the victims. At the ceremony, Mr. Jackson learned that one of the curmudgeons, Andy, had survived; an angina attack on the first had confined him to a hospital bed.

Two months later, Sam's family moved away and sold the delicatessen to a fast food franchise. A realtor moved into the space once occupied by Tony's Foods. Young people chatted merrily on streets that looked unchanged to them; they noticed the same shops and the same people as before the disaster. When they passed the crater at the fairgrounds, they vaguely recalled that this was the site where many old people had died. But those old people lacked faces or voices; they were members of a foreign species, invisible and unheard, except when they tugged at pockets for a handout or demanded that a wheelchair be pushed.

"I wish we could move," Mrs. Jackson sometimes said.

"But where could we go?" Mr. Jackson replied.

Mr. And Mrs. Jackson forced themselves to shop at the supermarket with too many brands and too many lights; they forced themselves to swallow morsels of food that always tasted bland. They made themselves watch the evening news and sit for dinner at 6 PM, routines that meant they were still alive and human, even if the food went uneaten and they stared unhearing at the screen. Several other old people had survived, but the Jacksons didn't try to find them. Their joints ached so much more, possibly due to their new gauntness, and their people were gone; they needed a good reason, an unavoidable chore, before they'd go into this new town of the young. A wan sediment of dust settled over their furniture; the leaky faucet dripped rhythmically, marking minutes and hours. Only Andy ever visited; Andy had been coming for years, belonged to the old life and the old town.

A year later, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson read an ad for the Hall of Hope, featuring a "funhouse extravaganza designed for the handicapped; a garden of delights for the deaf, the blind, the crippled, the cognitively challenged. Only the handicapped admitted, free of charge due to the generosity of our sponsors. A one day event only, at the Elmsbury fair grounds along Route eight."

Mr. Jackson passed the ad to his friend Andy.

"Would you go to this?" he asked.

Andy read and shrugged listlessly. "Yeah, maybe, if I was handicapped. Who knows? It's free, not expensive like those amusement park rides," he mumbled. "So, what's to lose?"

When Mr. and Mrs. Jackson went to the supermarket, they found that everyone in the checkout line was talking about the Hall of Hope.

"Makes me almost wish I were handicapped," a woman with garishly colored curls twittered. "Who'd miss a chance to have this kind of fun? And all - for nothing!"

"If I had any kind of disability," a portly man asserted, "I'd be there at dawn with my handicap-ticket. Even if I had a little disability - I'd be there with the doctors' certificates or school records testifying that I deserve admission. I might have two legs, but I'm handicapped all the same; this form proves it - so move over, Buddy, and let me in!"

"There's that home for the retarded at the end of my block," another shopper added. "Those kids - hardly kids, most of them are in their thirties - they go to the sheltered workshop every day, then come back to eat and sleep. There's not much excitement in their lives; a Hall of Hope funhouse would do those kids good. And my sister, who's teaches special Ed and knows about these things, says that there are millions of people in this country with serious disabilities. Those people need a little hope."

Simultaneously, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson felt a cold shiver of premonition tingle through their spines, and glanced at each other.

"It's just you and me now, we're alone together in this," they thought in unison.

No comments: