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Ring, by Nan Leslie

by Nan Leslie
  

The light in Cora's efficiency apartment had little to do with the time of day. (So few windows opened to the south side, and the one that did was covered with dust-ridden mini-blinds and a line of dead cacti balanced on the windowsill.) So when the time came for her son to pick her up, Cora waited outside on a bench underneath a canopy donated by the local chapter of the Elks Club, dressed in her favorite lavender pantsuit with the white Peter-Pan collar and embroidered seashell pockets and her newly-polished orthopedic shoes. She looked every bit of her eighty-six years, brittle and bent from osteoporosis, with portions of freckled skin dangling off her neck and arms as if it had fully separated from her flesh. Her face was the same, with jowls that quivered when she moved, but she had kind, clear blue eyes, and had only to wear her magnifying glasses for reading. She walked with some difficulty, but had not yet resorted to a cane, which was a source of pride to her—that—and her long pink fingernails she had manicured once a week at the lobby salon.

Her mind tumbled with the past and the present; she could never fully rely on either's authenticity and so had given up worrying about it.

On Sunday mornings the parking lot at Sun Valley Assisted Living Community was a hubbub of vehicles coming and going. All the activity confused Cora, who couldn't remember from week to week whether Bradley had called, so just to be sure she waited outside for him every Sunday. From early morning until late in the afternoon a line of anxious seniors checked each car as it pulled in, anticipating a drive and a meal to relieve them of the monotonous days that fell, one upon the other, like long-winded speeches at a political symposium.

Cora was a big believer in keeping up appearances. It was important that her Bradley be perceived as the best of all sons. The residents of Sun Valley talked nonstop about their children and grandchildren, embellishing their accomplishments, trying to outdo each other until Cora couldn't stand to listen to them anymore.

"He'll be here soon," she reassured Mrs. Kitchings, whose faithful son always arrived in his tank-sized Buick Riviera every Sunday afternoon at two to take her for a drive and the fried fish and chips she loved. "He's taking me to dinner. The Steakhouse." On the outside Sun Valley looked like any number of generic apartment buildings stacked up like red and white Lego blocks, but its proximity to the interstate was a key selling point with Bradley, who neglected his mother in the easy way children can when their lives are full. He had arranged for a home health aide to run her errands and prepare the simple soft foods that she loved and clean up when necessary (not that there was much to clean in her little L-shaped room), and hired a visiting nurse to check in on her once a day, always meaning to see her more often than he did.

When the weather turned, as it so often did in the Florida swamp, Cora would open her orange and yellow daisy umbrella and listen to raindrops plop onto canvas, a comforting sound, and the drips that blew in would dot her starched blue-white hair that Rhonda, her favorite beautician at the ground floor salon, had done for a mere ten dollars. When the last of her neighbors had been picked up, she would tire of waiting and return to the elevator for sixteen floors in sixteen seconds, then pad down the carpeted hall with the smell of TV dinners and over-ripe bananas, to number 16-423-E, still alive with the sounds of Emeril Lagasse and an exciting new dessert.

"Darn traffic must have held him up," she said to Emeril, and thought nothing of it now that she'd become accustomed to their talks. The television ran nonstop; she relied on its chatter as a weapon against the silence that seeped in like black smoke through every crack and crevice, working the veins in her neck like knotted gears, squeezing the lifeblood from her failing heart. It spoke to her. It offered up hope and friendship and never told her to settle down like Bradley's wife, Louise. She boiled water for tea and slipped a Stoffers frozen lasagna into the microwave. Then she changed into her one-size-fits-all pink velour housecoat and matching slippers, settling in for the regular evening line-up: Jeopardy, Wheel Of Fortune, and then it was time for her best friend, Colleen, to come on, chatting about all kinds of great gift ideas and people would call in and Cora would get so excited she would call in too, placing over $2,000 in orders over the last three months.

Bradley had warned her about her spending habits, but almost as soon as the words left his mouth they disappeared from Cora's mind, only the thought of some vague threat stayed with her, and the hope that he would visit again soon, he and his wife and their darling girls. Bradley. Her darling son. The absent son. Whatever part he played, from drunkard to saint, he stayed constant for her—her angel, her baby, conceived and confirmed from the day he could speak to lasso a trick-rope round his mother's heart, steamroller her sensibilities until he had what he wanted.

The phone rang half-way into Wheel of Fortune, just when Vanna White was getting ready to introduce the components of "The Australia Trip" prize, valued at over $25,000. Cora turned down the volume and picked up the receiver. Maybe it was Bradley.

"Hello, dear," she said when she heard his voice.

"Mother," Bradley began, the phone amplifying his irritation, "I just opened your Visa bill. What sane person orders $300 worth of "Jesus Saves" bumper stickers? You don't even own a car." His voice, already nudged up an octave or two from the day's unpleasant discovery, resounded like a violin climbing sharps and flats.

"Bradley, dear, it's for a good cause. When are you coming for a visit?" Cora's hands began to shake. She turned to check on the game show. It looked like Mike, the contestant from Ohio, had blown the trip. Too bad.

"I mean it, Mother. You're depleting your savings. If this doesn't stop, I'm going to have to do something drastic. If you continue ordering junk from Network Shopping Club, I'm going to have the cable shut off."

"Are you coming this Sunday?"

"I already told you, there's too much going right now—my sales manager's driving me crazy, but we're planning on a visit the Sunday after that, all of us, even the baby. In the meantime, ask Mrs. Hunt for anything you need. I've got to go, but I want you to promise me you won't charge anything else for now."

"Yes, dear." Cora wasn't paying attention. The handsome young Marine in uniform was already up to $3,500. Maybe he would get to go for the bonus prize.

Shaney Griggs rumbled up to the curb in his battered 1976 Ford Mustang convertible with the dull mint-green paint job he had done on the side at the repo lot for a hundred bucks. He checked his Brell Cream hair framed by Elvis sideburns in the review mirror before jumping over the car door, admiring himself in the reflection of the storefront glass. He wore skin-tight black jeans over cowboy boots with silver tipped toes and a shiny red shirt unbuttoned to form a wide V, showing off his chest hair. His beer paunch spilled over an exquisite silver belt buckle depicting a cowboy riding a bull; he had knobby shoulders with a pack of Kools stuck under one rolled-up sleeve and he carried an extra smoke behind one ear. He walked with a deliberate sweep of his hips orchestrated into every stride, balancing on the heels of his feet at the close, imitating some hip cop-show reruns he still watched on television. His nose was set at a funny angle, drawing attention away from his deep-set, imprudent black eyes, and his lips were wet and rubbery from a nervous habit he'd acquired of running his tongue over them.

He crossed the street to the downtown offices of S.P. Tele-Services, known to the people on the inside as "ring and sting," a telemarketing scheme that preyed on the elderly, the lonely, the weak-minded optimists of the world, cashing in quick and then blowing out of town so fast the only thing left for the Feds to investigate was an empty Styrofoam coffee cup. Shaney was one of the best. He traveled from state to state looking for new material and when he landed in Florida he said it was as good as watching a great porn film in 3-D digital surround sound. He'd adopted a southern drawl he could turn on and off at whim, another marketing tool designed to seduce his victims.

"Hey, grab me a Mountain Dew, will yawl? I need the caffeine. If I bag ten today, that's five G's and a crisp one in my pocket by payday. I'm too good." Shaney grabbed a seat behind one of fifty partitions beeping away with ear phones, credit card machines, faxes, and computers.

"Hey, Shaney, why don't you take a flying leap. I got my own work to do." The guy in the next booth blew him off.

"Work? Don't make me laugh. The day you learn how to work the phones, I'll sell vacuum cleaners for a living."

"You'll be selling them stateside if you don't watch out, you conceited prick."

"Don't worry about me little Mama, I'll be living it up south of the border while you're still humping phones for a living." Shaney couldn't understand why they hired such rank amateurs. Where were their standards? He had racked up a respectable number in the bank that he planned to top off and then retire with to Mexico where he could find a young girl to clean and cook and fuck him for the price of a beer. He picked up his headset, lit a cigarette, and went to work.

The minute Cora hung up, the phone rang again. "Hello, Bradley, is that you, dear?"

Can I speak to Cora, please?"

"Who's calling?"

"Cora? It's Bobby Woodward, do you remember me?" Shaney's voice, now smooth and rich as fine wine, broke her attention away from the television set.

"Woodward, that name sounds familiar—"

"It's Bobby from International Golden Properties. I secured that beautiful one bedroom on the pool side for you. We spoke last week, remember?"

"Oh yes—Bobby. How are you dear?"

"I'm fine, Cora, how are you?"

"I've been better, been better."

"What is it? Your arthritis bothering you again?"

"It bothers me all the time. It's getting worse and worse. Dr. Auerbach says it's my age—dear Lord, I'll be eighty-seven next month."

"Do you remember what we talked about last time—how I'd try to talk my boss down?"

"Your boss?"

"I gave it my best shot, you know, just like we planned, but he wouldn't go for it. The bottom line is, Cora, I gotta have another five to seal the deal for you. But don't think for one minute I'm not thinking of you. I've got your best interests at heart. You're a nice lady, Cora, and I like you. So I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I don't do this for just anybody, you know; this is special—I'm cutting into my own steak here, but for you, Cora, for you, I can make a miracle."

"A miracle?"

"That's exactly right. Just wait until you take your son and his lovely wife to your grand resort suite for a dream vacation in the beautiful Florida sunshine. They're gonna run right into your arms and thank you for making their dreams come true. And it is a dream, Cora, the best darn dream you're ever gonna live. Palm trees swaying in the background, water lilies floating in the fountains, you and your loved ones taking an evening stroll around your resort property, the moon reflecting off the pool and five-hundred gallon hot tub with central ice bucket, champagne glasses tinkling as you toast to another day in paradise and thank your lucky stars the day you met Bobby Woodward. Let me tell you something, Cora. I've been in this business over ten years. And in those ten exciting years, I've been all over the world. My wife—she's been to every Caribbean island there is—she's been to Europe seven times, Mexico half-a-dozen the other, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and don't forget Maui. That's the beauty of the program, Cora. You call the shots, you choose where you want to go. All you have to do is call our 1-800 number and it's done. Done! There wasn't one time when we couldn't trade properties within our world family. And that's what we are, Cora, one big happy family. Once you become part of our global family, you're in it for life. And not only that, when the time comes, and God knows it will someday, you'll be leaving behind a legacy to your children and grandchildren. Just imagine that. This is forever, Cora. I'm talking about forever."

"We'd all like to leave a little something behind to be remembered by." Cora flicked the remote to the Network Shopping Club. Colleen should be on any minute. She'd lost track of the handsome Marine. But it was good of Bobby to call; he sounded like just the kind of young man Bradley could use to help him with all that life insurance selling he had to do.

"My thoughts exactly. Imagine being the proud owner of a piece of premium Florida real estate with a state-of-the-art fitness center, deluxe clubhouse complete with full-service dining room, indoor pool, outdoor pool, kitty pool for your grandchildren, and best of all, a fully furnished suite with a whirlpool tub. And your suite has a sunken bedroom, fully applianced kitchen, big screen TV, your own private deck overlooking the pool, and much, much more. But I need five-thousand to put your name on the title deed, Cora."

"I don't know. I can't think. What was the price again?"

"It's only $12,299.99. Just like I told you before. And to make it easy for you, because let's face it, most of us don't have that kind of limit on just one card, do we?"

"No—I—"

"To make it easy we've divided it up into two equal payments of $6,149.99—to make it easy for you. Not only that, I saved the best part for last. Are you ready?"

"I think so."

"Good girl. What I need from you now, Cora, I need a down payment of $2,299.99 to make your dream vacation home came true. But I'll tell you what. Because we're at the end of construction, because you were one of the last lucky folks to get in on this fabulous opportunity, I'm gonna give you a 20% discount lowering your payment to only $1,839.99. Unbelievable. I know. But this is your lucky day, Cora, and I'm here to help make all your dreams come true."

"It sounds like a wonderful opportunity. But I promised my son I wouldn't buy anything else on my credit cards."

"And so you shouldn't. But this isn't your regular everyday purchase. This is the opportunity of a lifetime—and Cora, you already committed to me last week. You don't know what I went through on your behalf. I won't even tell you..."

"You didn't get into trouble with your boss?"

"Let's just say he's not talking to me."

"Oh, dear..."

"But I did it for you, Cora. I know the kind of person you are. You're a loving and generous mother. You'd turn down a gift for yourself, but you'd never turn down a gift for your son and his wife. And don't you think he'd be surprised with a dream vacation every year for the rest of his life?"

"I can't even imagine—why he'd be so surprised—and Louise—that's my daughter-in-law—talked about St. Thomas once and how they wanted to fly down one winter, but then they had to replace the tires on their Jeep."

"That's what I'm talking about. Now Louise doesn't have to wait for those new tires to be paid off; she's got a guaranteed, guaranteed vacation in beautiful St. Thomas or anywhere else she wants every year for the rest of her life!"

"My goodness, I can just see her face when I tell her."

"But first we've got to take care of some business. I need your Visa number."

"Visa? Oh, dear, I can't use that anymore. Bradley canceled it. I keep getting these nasty notes with my bill."

"How about Mastercard?"

"I'm not sure. Let me check. Hold on a minute please..."

Shaney cradled the phone with his neck and watched the second hand on the wall clock count down. Jesus, this lady was slow. "Yeah, Cora, we go through this every time. You promised." He could feel her slipping away from him, it was like hanging by his fingertips from a ledge twenty stories high.

"I always try to keep my promise—" Cora could feel herself giving way to a good cry. She allowed herself the occasional teary session and afterwards had trouble remembering why she was crying in the first place, but it made her feel so much better that she was thinking of adding it to her daily list of things to do: SEND OUT DRY-CLEANING, SEW BUTTON ON BLOUSE, HAVE A GOOD CRY.

"Calm down. There's no reason to get upset."

"I promised my son—" Cora's voice broke.

Shaney took a deep breath. "You promised your son you wouldn't spend money on yourself. And you didn't. So you've got nothing to worry about—he's gonna be thrilled to death. His own vacation suite—hey, knock it off, for chrissake." He locked on to her, going in for the kill, his tone grating like a hacksaw on maple hardwood. "I went out on a limb for you. I risked my job for you; I may not have a job when I see my boss tomorrow, and you know what? You know what, Cora? I did it all for you. You. Nobody else. And what do you do for me in return? You start crying, that's what. I'm ashamed of you, I really am."

"I appreciate what you did for me—"

"I should hope so. Risking my neck to save you a few bucks. It isn't done, Cora. It just isn't done!"

"I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"

"Of course I forgive you. I'm the forgiving type. That's why I'm always looking for a clean bed to sleep in at night and a hot meal in my belly—because I give it all away. Just like that, thirty years down the drain; I'm a do-gooder, a Christian man, a soul saver, reaching out and scooping up all you poor lost souls—making your life a little bit better. You'll thank me. Your loved ones will thank me. I'm sending those stickers you ordered UPS on Thursday, so keep an eye out for the truck. That order comes to $1,839.99 plus Florida state tax."

"That can't be right."

"I've got the order form right here in front of me. You authorized payment by your Mastercard. I've got the number right here."

"You've got my number, oh dear. Bradley isn't going to like that. Promise me you won't tell him."

"I wouldn't do that, Cora. You know me better than that."

"I know you wouldn't. You're a nice boy."

"But now, Cora, I've got to tell you who I ran into the other day, you'll never guess."

"Was it somebody famous?"

"How'd you know that?"

"Just a lucky guess—oh, Bobby, it's so good to hear your voice. Bradley, you know who Bradley is, dear, don't you?"

"Yes, Cora, I do." He wanted to reach through the phone line and rip out her tonsils with his bare hands and wrap them around her neck. If he let her get started on that son of hers, he'd never get her off the phone. And after all this, maybe she didn't even have a good card anymore. This morning was turning into a bummer already.

"He's always working. He's such a hard worker."

"Let's get back on track here—try to concentrate. I saw her coming out of that celebrity restaurant—"

"Constantines? I saw that on Regis and Kathie Lee. Kathie Lee took Cassidy and her friends there for her birthday. They looked so cute, all dressed up in their little outfits."

"Listen to me, Cora, concentrate, please!" He could feel himself losing control. He had to get it back quick.

"I'm trying."

"It was Barbara Walters."

"What did she look like? Is she as pretty in person as she is on TV? Was she with anybody, that what's his name she's been dating for a while now?"

"Look like? I don't know. She was wearing a pink suit. She asked me to ask you if you would help her out with a new children's charity she's setting up."

"Well, of course I will. A pink suit. Did she have on those fabulous pearls she wears when she's on TV with Hugh Downs?"

"Sure, sure, she had them; they were so big they was almost choking her."

"Oh my..."

"Listen, Cora. I gotta have five-hundred. She said five-hundred was the least amount you could pay to get in on her charity."

"Five-hundred?"

"That's what she said. She also said for me to tell you that she's really touched by your help, and that she'll send you an autographed picture just for doing the five-hundred."

"Well, I'll be..." Cora was a sucker for a good cause, especially if it involved children.

"So I gotta have that number, Cora. You said you have another card?"

"It's brand new. I guess I'll let Barbara break it in for me. Can you imagine?"

"Go get the number, Cora. It's in your purse."

"Hang on please..."

"Do you believe this broad?" Shaney turned toward the guy in the next booth, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. "She thinks she's pals with Barbara Walters. This will take her at least ten minutes. I've got her routine memorized, for chrissake. First she'll fumble around in her purse, then she'll realize she don't got no purse, she's got a pouch on a belt because she can't remember to take it with her unless it's strapped to her waist. Then she'll look through all the cards in her wallet before she realizes it was the first one she looked at, and then maybe, just maybe, she'll remember I'm on the phone and pick up the receiver and give me the number."

"Yeah, Cora, I'm still here. Did you try the pouch around your waist? Yes, I remembered that too. That's a good girl. I knew you'd find it. Read me the numbers—yeah, I've got a pen, 2234689473, you sure? Expiration date? Go over the numbers again, just to be sure—never mind, it's going through."

"Bobby? What was the name of that charity again?"

"It's Feed The Children, you know."

"Oh yes—I've heard of them. Can I take it off on my income tax?"

"Sure you can. I'll send you a receipt."

"Bobby? Are you there? We had a nice long chat, didn't we?"

Cora hung up the phone and gave her full attention to Colleen, her new best friend, who was smiling and talking about a rare peridot ring, accented on either side with blue topaz baguettes and set in ten karat gold. Once Cora reached this place, all other matters ceased to exist.

Three weeks later, Bradley pulled out a stack of mail from his mailbox and went through his mother's bills. When he opened the Mastercard envelope, he threw up his hands and said to his wife, "Well, that's it. She'll have to go into a nursing home." His wife didn't say anything, thinking of her own stack of Network Shopping Club bills she had hidden in the back room.

When he tried to explain it to his mother, she started crying. "I want to stay here," she kept repeating until Bradley got her to calm down long enough to talk about it. "I don't want to leave. My best friend, Colleen, lives here. And then there's Bobby." Tears flowed at the mention of their names.

"You'll make new friends," he said, holding her hand awkwardly and trying to pat her stiff puff of hair. He wasn't very good at this.

"It won't be the same," Cora whined, and then was distracted by the pretty little brunette they had guest-hosting for Colleen. Cora admired her outfit: a dark green pantsuit decorated with purple and blue butterflies on sale for an unbelievable $29.99—what a bargain.

  

Nan Leslie won the fiction award from the University of Washington's Fiction Writer's Association, and is nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize anthology. She has published more than 20 essays and short stories in literary magazines and anthologies such as Mindprints, Ascent, The Pittsburgh Review, Del Sol Review, The Best of Carve Magazine, and has written feature articles on crafting fiction for The Writer as well as interviewing editors of literary journals for writer's magazines. She formally wrote a newsletter, The Daily Grind, for Coffeehouse for Writers, lauded by The Wall Street Journal, and was on staff at Moondance and then Able Muse as fiction editor and teacher of a fiction workshop. She is currently fiction editor for The Green Hills Literary Lantern, funded by the Missouri Arts Council, and senior fiction editor for Web Del Sol's In Posse Review. She lives and works in a lakeside cottage in Maine.
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