J. Weintraub ~ Driving Mom and Dad Home from the Wedding

i 

When I awoke, I real­ized that both my con­tact lens­es and my moth­er were miss­ing, although at first I was far more con­cerned about the con­tact lens­es. After all, with­out them how much more dif­fi­cult would it be to find my Mom, not to men­tion our way back home?

My father woke up about the same time I did.

Where’s your moth­er?” he asked from the back seat of the car.

I don’t know,” I said.

Well, don’t you think we should look for her?” he asked.

I’ve got to find my con­tacts first,” I said.

Maybe she went out to take a piss,” he said.

Maybe she did,” I replied as I slow­ly swept my hands over my pants, then the leather uphol­stery between my thighs, and then slow­ly over my shirt­front, my lap, and the sleeves of my suit, one after the oth­er.

Sometimes she just wan­ders off,” con­tin­ued my Dad. “But usu­al­ly not very far, and she always winds up at places she knows. The hair­dress­er. The A & P,” and then he added, “Now that I think about it, I’ve got to take a piss myself,” and after step­ping from the tilt­ing car out onto the sandy shoul­der, he walked toward the thick­et on the oth­er side of the nar­row gul­ley just below us, a wall of marsh grass­es and reeds tow­er­ing over his head.

~

I had nev­er intend­ed to dri­ve Mom and Dad to the wed­ding, and I made that very clear to my sis­ter on the phone. “I thought they were going to stay with you,” I com­plained. “Overnight like always, and then you could come and pick me up down­town.”

Not this time,” she said. “Car’s full, and the gue­strooms are packed with cousins.”

But I wasn’t going to rent a car, and I don’t want to pay for hotel park­ing.”

Then rent it for just the day, and be sure to get at least a mid­size. A Bonneville or a LeSabre. You know how Dad likes his legroom.”

But I’ve got these new con­tacts, and they’re giv­ing me fits … “

I told you to get the soft ones.”

I will next time. But for now … “

Then wear your glass­es.”

I need my con­tacts for dis­tance, and … “

And you’ll have to pick them up at the house. As I said, they won’t be com­ing over here this time.”

But I haven’t been back to the old neigh­bor­hood in years, and … “

Good, it’ll be a rev­e­la­tion for you, I’m sure.” For some time, my sis­ter had been urg­ing our par­ents to leave the home they had been liv­ing in for the past fifty years. The neigh­bor­hood, she said, had been dete­ri­o­rat­ing quick­ly and dan­ger­ous­ly, and she want­ed them to move into a senior com­mu­ni­ty near her where they could get the addi­tion­al per­son­al and med­ical care they insist­ed they didn’t need. “And do me a favor,” she con­tin­ued. “When you’re there, check out their new neigh­bors and count the ‘For Sale’ signs on the block.”

But the wedding’s in Jersey. I don’t know … “

I’ll send you a map.”

But I haven’t … “

I said I’ll send you a map,” and she hung up.

I was try­ing to tell her that oth­er than on the turn­pike pass­ing through on my way to New York, I hadn’t dri­ven in Jersey for years. Of course, when we were kids, my fam­i­ly often spent two-week vaca­tions at the shore—Atlantic City and Cape May—and I always dread­ed those slow, con­vo­lut­ed dri­ves in the sti­fling inte­ri­or of my father’s Chrysler, over the rur­al back roads he took in his failed attempts to avoid the week­end traf­fic out of the city. I wasn’t much of a trav­el­er then, and before long, nau­se­at­ed by the heat and my father’s sud­den brak­ing and accel­er­at­ing at the con­stant stop-and-go, I quick­ly made use of the emp­ty cof­fee can my moth­er brought along for just that pur­pose, and ever since then, I have always asso­ci­at­ed South Jersey with motion sick­ness.

But as she had promised, my sis­ter sent me a detailed, hand-drawn map of the short­est route from my parent’s house to the Executive Lake Country Club and Community Center where the wed­ding was to take place. Of course, with only one wrong turn we would not only like­ly have been late for the wed­ding but also, prob­a­bly, irre­triev­ably lost. So, after cross­ing the bridge into Jersey, I referred to her map obses­sive­ly, strain­ing to read every street sign and route num­ber, count­ing traf­fic sig­nals lead­ing up to each turn as she had sug­gest­ed, and not­ing all the indi­cat­ed landmarks—gas sta­tions, drug empo­ria, dis­count liquor out­lets, car dealerships—as we passed each along the way. I had left my sun­glass­es behind since cloudy skies were fore­cast and I would be dri­ving pri­mar­i­ly toward the east, but it seemed that at every turn or merge, I found myself star­ing into a bril­liant, descend­ing sun, its unob­struct­ed rays pierc­ing my eyes like shards of glass. Once we arrived at the Executive Lakes com­plex, the con­struc­tion at its entrance forced me to detour off the map and to be espe­cial­ly vig­i­lant as we drove through Macy’s park­ing lot, past strips of chain bou­tiques and restau­rants, and between the golf course and dri­ving range to final­ly arrive at the Country Club and Community Center.

Dropping Mom and Dad off with my sis­ter and broth­er-in-law who were wait­ing for us in the foy­er, I hur­ried into the near­est restroom to remove my con­tacts and give them a thor­ough rins­ing. Perhaps my eyes still need­ed to adjust to them or they were sim­ply a bad fit or there was a scratch or some sort of irri­tant or grit had got­ten into them. Whatever the cause, the whites of my eyes were now pink and the pupils bulged out­wards vis­i­bly. A wet paper-tow­el com­press soothed them enough for me to return the lens­es to my eyes, but as soon as the wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny was over, I rushed back into the restroom to repeat the process and then excused myself three times dur­ing the recep­tion, the final time wait­ing twen­ty minutes—leaning against the sink, star­ing at myself in the mirror—before, cring­ing, I put them in again. Still, we weren’t ready to leave until after mid­night, and by then even my sis­ter com­ment­ed on the red in my eyes.

And my vision’s far too blurred, to read your map.” I told her, “ I’ll nev­er be able to back­track with it, par­tic­u­lar­ly now that it’s dark and with all that con­struc­tion.”

Ok, then,” she sug­gest­ed, “you’ll fol­low me. We’ll exit from the oth­er side of the Lakes and pick up sev­en­ty. It’s a lit­tle out of the way and much longer, but it’ll lead you into nine­ty-five, and from there you should have no prob­lem find­ing your way back, right?”

Ok,” I said, “but dri­ve slow,” and she did, but it was dark, and there was con­struc­tion in the oth­er direc­tion, too, and my con­tacts seemed sharp­er and grit­ti­er than ever, and, besides, I was still dis­tract­ed and some­what dis­con­cert­ed by my father’s ear­li­er col­lapse.

He had been walk­ing between me and my Mom as we descend­ed from the recep­tion hall down a small stair­case into the foy­er of the Community Center. He already seemed a bit unsteady when sud­den­ly his knees buck­led and he top­pled back­wards. I grabbed for his arm, but clutched only a fist­ful of fab­ric. His jack­et, whose sleeve I retained, slipped over his face as he set­tled back onto the steps.

What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” my moth­er cried out, tight­ly grip­ping his oth­er arm, hold­ing it awk­ward­ly over his head.

Dad, are you all right?”

I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, his voice par­tial­ly muf­fled by the jack­et stretched over his mouth. “I just lost my bal­ance. Help me up.”

It’s his heart,” said my Mom. “I know it’s his heart!”

It’s not my heart,” he replied angri­ly. “I just lost my bal­ance.”

I knew this would hap­pen,” she con­tin­ued. “From the day we were mar­ried, I knew this would hap­pen some­day.”

Just help me up, will you, please.”

Slipping my hands beneath his armpits, I hoist­ed him to his feet. My father had always been a stur­dy man, and stout. But now, as I lift­ed him, he seemed almost weight­less. I had shift­ed to the step above for lever­age, and as he straight­ened his jack­et and looked back up at me, he seemed to have shrunk­en in height, too.

Is every­thing ok?” asked my sis­ter, who, hav­ing pre­ced­ed us out, quick­ly retraced her steps when she real­ized what had hap­pened.

I’m fine, I’m fine,” said my father. “Nothing’s wrong. Just get us home.”

It’s his heart. I know it’s his heart. I’m mak­ing an appoint­ment with Dr. Sobel, first thing tomor­row morn­ing.”

You’ll do noth­ing of the sort,” said my father, “and it’s not my heart.”

My sis­ter, after star­ing long and hard at both of them, frowned slight­ly and shook her head regret­ful­ly as if she had wit­nessed sim­i­lar scenes many times before. “Just stay close behind. I’ll dri­ve slow,” and after she rejoined my broth­er-in-law in the foy­er, they exit­ed to the park­ing lot.

I did my best to fol­low them, too, as we pulled out, but as I said, it was dark, there was con­struc­tion, my vision was blurred, and my par­ents’ con­stant bick­er­ing over my father’s con­di­tion was a dis­trac­tion.

I’m fine,” he insist­ed. “I’m real­ly all right.”

You don’t look so all right to me,” said Mom, twist­ing around in the pas­sen­ger seat to inspect him.

I just lost my bal­ance, that’s all.”

People don’t just lose their bal­ance.”

Sure they do. They do all the time. They slip and fall. On the ice, for instance.”

What ice?’

Just this last win­ter. On the ice. Don’t you remem­ber?”

Was that Sis who just turned down there?” I asked. “That’s her car, isn’t it?”

And I sup­pose you just lost you bal­ance then, too?”

No, that was a slip and a fall. On the ice.”

And you’ve still got that nasty bruise. You could’ve bro­ken some­thing. I told you to see Dr. Sobel about that, and now you’ve fall­en again, and it’s prob­a­bly worse.”

I didn’t fall on the same place. Besides, it was hard­ly a fall at all. He caught me. You caught me, didn’t you?”

Wait a minute. Those are Jersey plates, aren’t they? Sis doesn’t have Jersey plates, does she?”

Why would your sis­ter have Jersey plates?” my moth­er replied. “She lives in Pennsylvania, you know that,” and then she turned back to my father again. “I’m mak­ing that appoint­ment with Dr. Sobel tomor­row. At the very least, he can take a look at that bruise.”

You can make the appoint­ment, but I won’t be going.”

Mom, Dad, please. Keep your eyes open. I think I’ve lost her. Look for a sign for sev­en­ty. She said it’s right around here.”

Seventy? That’s not how we came.”

I know. But now I want to get to nine­ty-five. Look for a sign for Trenton, maybe, or even Atlantic City would help.”

Atlantic City?” exclaimed my father. “Why would you want to go to Atlantic City? You nev­er even liked to go to Atlantic City. You always got sick.”

I don’t want to go to Atlantic City, or Trenton, for that mat­ter. I just want to know where we’re going, and a direc­tion­al sign to some­where I’ve heard of might help!”

But there were no signs, at least none that would lead me to any­where I want­ed to go—just Main and Pine Streets and num­bered coun­ty routes and Bridge, River, Cranberry Bog, and Sleepy Creek Roads, all seem­ing to descend from asphalt into gran­ite into dirt and back to asphalt again as I turned off. My head­lights were the only illu­mi­na­tion, and rarely were there any dis­cernible hous­es or farms along the road, just stunt­ed trees and tall grass­es and an occa­sion­al shad­owy geo­met­ric shape that rose from the flat fields and farm­lands that stretched into the dark. After some time I caught a glimpse of what I assumed to be the Garden State Parkway run­ning par­al­lel to my route. It didn’t lead in my direc­tion, but since it was a major high­way. I tried to pick it up twice, the first time dri­ving over it and the sec­ond time under, and even­tu­al­ly los­ing sight of it alto­geth­er. But by then, I was sure I was trav­el­ing direct­ly west, towards home, until I real­ized that the land had become even flat­ter, that I was dri­ving past more and larg­er ponds, inlets, and canals, and when the salt in the air became so thick I could taste it, I pulled over onto a wide shoul­der and stopped.

Why are we stop­ping,” asked my father.

I’ve got to get these con­tacts out,” I said. “If I can let my eyes breathe and maybe get a few min­utes rest, I might be able to read a sign clear­ly again or a map … “

A map? What do we need a map for? Are we lost?”
“Are we home?” asked my moth­er, sud­den­ly awak­en­ing from the sleep she had fall­en into about a half-hour before.

I told you both a while back, I must have made a wrong turn out of Executive Lakes and … “

I think we’re sink­ing,” said my father.

He was right. The pas­sen­ger side of the car was slow­ly set­tling into the soft sand of the shoul­der. Still, I was dri­ving a pow­er­ful four-wheel-dri­ve Pontiac sedan, and I was not yet ready to wor­ry about or even con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being stuck for the rest of the night in a South Jersey bog.

Look, after I rest my eyes for just a few min­utes, I’ll pull that map out of the glove com­part­ment and see if I can read it. If not, I’ll stop at a gas sta­tion … “

What gas sta­tion? I don’t see any gas sta­tions. I don’t see any­thing around here.”

Look, Mom could use a lit­tle rest, too.” In fact, she had already leaned her head against the win­dow and fall­en back to sleep. “And it prob­a­bly wouldn’t hurt you to take a lit­tle nap.”

I’m not tired,” he said. “I’ll just lean my head back and maybe close my eyes while the big shot behind the wheel tries to fig­ure out where we are,” and with­in a few moments, he, too, was snor­ing.

By then, my con­tacts felt as if they had been glued to my eyes with paste caked dry, but I even­tu­al­ly pried them off, and plac­ing them in the cen­ter of my palm, I pressed my fin­gers tight­ly over them. At first, I had trou­ble keep­ing my lids closed, but after gen­tly mas­sag­ing them with my oth­er hand, I man­aged to shut them with­out pain, and when I set­tled back against the leather head­rest, as if some­one had waved a mag­ic wand over my head, I fell swift­ly and sound­ly asleep.

 

ii

A grey light had been ris­ing for some time from the east, but it wasn’t near­ly bright enough to help me find my miss­ing con­tacts, and oth­er­wise motion­less, I con­tin­ued to sweep my fin­gers and palms over my clothes and then onto the pas­sen­ger seat where my moth­er had once been sit­ting. Not until I had explored the fis­sures and fit­tings around the gear­box and emer­gency brake, and the hol­lows of the bev­er­age and coin recep­ta­cles did I dare to shift my posi­tion and bend over toward the rub­ber floor mat­ting. But even if I had found the lens­es there, the grit from the dirt, sand, flaked leaves, and gen­er­al muck at my feet would have dis­cour­aged me from insert­ing them soon back into my eyes, and I gave up my search when my father, hav­ing clam­bered up from the gul­ley below, tapped on the win­dow across from me.

He was point­ing down­ward, and when I joined him on the oth­er side of the car, I saw that the tires there had sunk halfway up their hub­caps in the soft, wet sand. It seemed I wasn’t going to be pre­vent­ed from dri­ving home by lack of vision alone.

I could, how­ev­er, see well enough to know that my moth­er was nowhere near­by; nor were there any shad­owy fig­ures to be seen van­ish­ing far into the dis­tance at either end of the road. Across from us, a scat­ter­ing of pitch pines and dwarf oaks thick­ened even­tu­al­ly into a scrub for­est that seemed impen­e­tra­ble, and on our side, at the oth­er edge of the gul­ley, a wall of tall grasses—backed by reeds, rush­es, and sedge—sprouted upward, the silken tas­sels at the end of their blades dan­gling above us, sway­ing in the light breeze. The thick foliage came to an abrupt end about a hun­dred yards down from us, as an inter­sec­tion cut into the road.

What was behind that cur­tain of green, var­ied here and there by tar­nished and des­ic­cat­ed yel­lows? A swamp, a spongy quag­mire, maybe even patch­es of quick­sand where not only an elder­ly woman but even a healthy ath­lete could founder and van­ish? I envi­sioned, irra­tional­ly, of course, croc­o­diles there and hye­nas and vul­tures feed­ing off of car­cass­es, and when I heard a flock of gulls screech­ing, wings flap­ping seem­ing­ly by the hun­dreds as they took off sud­den­ly from some near­by sea­wall, I told my father to fol­low me down to the inter­sec­tion to see what lay behind that green wall.

But nei­ther a tidal marsh nor wet­land savan­nah faced us when we turned the cor­ner. Rather, we found our­selves at the edge of a vast and emp­ty con­crete plaza, and when the sun burst through the over­cast morn­ing, a blast of shim­mer­ing light radi­at­ed off a gold­en dome, illu­mi­nat­ing the hori­zon as if a sec­ond sun had risen there.

Why,” said my father, “it’s the Kubla Khan!”

The Kubla Khan?” I asked.

Sure, you know. Bernie Kahn’s new place.”

I remem­bered. Bernie Kahn was the secre­tive real estate devel­op­er, wealthy beyond belief, who was deter­mined to build a resort and casi­no empire on the East Coast. To that end, he had recent­ly opened this new ven­ture on a huge tract of des­o­late land across the bay from Mystic Island. He had hoped to attract high rollers and wealthy tourists who had grown dis­en­chant­ed with Atlantic City, and he had even had a pri­vate air­port built for their use. For the time being, how­ev­er, his bot­tom line depend­ed on the hordes of elder­ly pen­ny-ante pen­sion­ers his fleet of tour bus­es brought to the prop­er­ty around the clock.

One of his bus­es picks up right in front of the old Regal Theatre,” my father informed me, “Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It leaves prac­ti­cal­ly at dawn. Your mother’s been nag­ging me to go, but I pre­fer Atlantic City where I can walk out onto the board­walk and get a lit­tle fresh air while your mother’s squan­der­ing our life’s sav­ings at a dol­lar a pull.”

And just as he fin­ished, a tour bus swerved around the cor­ner right behind us. We quick­ly stepped aside as it roared past, speed­ing across the con­crete lot to the far end and blan­ket­ing us with sand and dust.

I’ll bet your mother’s there,” he said, wip­ing the dirt from his jack­et and point­ing toward the radi­ance of the gold­en dome, and since there were only thick­ets and marsh­land in every oth­er direc­tion, I fol­lowed him as he hur­ried across the lot.

A trail of seniors were descend­ing from the bus, and as we approached, I saw that they were head­ing for a nar­row canal, per­haps a moat, that sep­a­rat­ed the park­ing lot from the cav­ernous entry to the casi­no. Several arched bridges crossed the water­way, but the mov­ing stair­wells at their cen­ters were immo­bile, and pad­locked wire fences blocked each of them. We joined the pro­ces­sion just as it reached a gate­way to what appeared to be a fer­ry launch.

One at a time, one at a time,” said the fer­ry­man, tap­ping each of the pas­sen­gers on the shoul­der with the tip of his pole and help­ing them descend, one at a time, slow­ly, care­ful­ly, into his craft. Rather than a fer­ry, it looked more like a wide, flat­tened gon­do­la, almost a barge, and I lat­er learned that it was usu­al­ly devot­ed to tak­ing gam­blers and hotel guests on a mean­der­ing cruise through the Caliph’s Canals, past the Hanging Gardens, and into the Blue Paradise Lagoon where they could dis­em­bark for a cock­tail or a swim. But when the walk­ways on the bridges were mal­func­tion­ing, as they were that morn­ing, the launch was used to car­ry cus­tomers from the upper park­ing lot direct­ly across the canal to the Crystal Cavern, the north­ern entrance to the casi­no.

The tur­ban on the ferryman’s head height­ened his already impos­ing fig­ure, and with every move­ment the mus­cles of his shoul­ders and chest flexed against the silk shirt he wore beneath a vel­vet vest, fil­i­greed in gold. I won­dered if he was near the end of a dou­ble shift, hav­ing worked through the night, since his eyes seemed to have sunk behind his cheek­bones and they shone with an eerie, blood-stained glare. “That’ll be two coins apiece,” he said as he motioned the cou­ple ahead into his boat. “Pennies, nick­els, dimes, quar­ters, checks, what­ev­er you’ve got. Two coins for the fer­ry­man.”

I pulled two quar­ters out of my pock­et as my father stepped into the boat, and as I hand­ed them to the fer­ry­man, I asked if he had tak­en a small, elder­ly woman across some­time before the last bus had arrived. “About five-foot tall, per­haps a lit­tle dis­tract­ed, and wear­ing a pink evening gown, prob­a­bly a lit­tle wrin­kled, as if she had been sleep­ing in it.”

Half the peo­ple I take across are small elder­ly women,” said the fer­ry­man, “and the oth­er half are small elder­ly men, and I nev­er notice what they’re wear­ing. That’ll be anoth­er two coins. Two coins apiece, what­ev­er you’ve got. Pennies, nick­els, dimes, quar­ters, or checks. Two coins for the fer­ry­man.”

Nothing more was in my right pants pock­et, but when I checked the left one, expect­ing to find it emp­ty. I pulled out a pair of small disks that rolled into my palm and sparkled in the morn­ing sun.

My con­tacts!” I exclaimed aloud, and then I called out to my father. “Dad, do you have any change!” But he had already set­tled into the prow of the boat and was either out of earshot or had decid­ed to ignore me.

I’ll take those,” said the fer­ry­man, and then he leaned over to whis­per in my ear. “Got to save face. I’ll exchange them for pen­nies, nick­els, dimes, quar­ters, checks, or what­ev­er you’ve got on the way back.”

Ok,” I said, hav­ing no inten­tion of return­ing them to my eyes for the time being, and after hand­ing them over, I joined my father and the oth­er pas­sen­gers, and with two strong thrusts of the ferryman’s pole, we were across.

The hotel-casi­no com­plex was said to con­tain “a thou­sand and one sybarit­ic cham­bers,” includ­ing the Scheherazade Suites, the dozens of lux­u­ry restau­rants and bou­tiques in the gal­leried med­i­nas, the Turkish baths and saunas in the sub­ter­ranean lev­els, and the pri­vate Ali Baba Rooms in the Thieves’ Lair, where mon­eyed gam­blers could play bac­carat, pai gow, and Texas Hold’em for high stakes. But when we exit­ed from the Crystal Cavern into the main gam­bling hall—the doors slid­ing auto­mat­i­cal­ly open with a sibi­lant, whis­per­ing “Open Sesame” then slid­ing shut to seal us within—we were con­front­ed by a scene from every casi­no I’d ever gam­bled in, the same row-upon-row of slots, flu­o­res­cent lights flash­ing, bells and buzzers ring­ing and blar­ing.

Behind, beneath the great canopy of the Pleasure Dome, were the black­jack and craps pits, although at that hour only a few bored deal­ers and soli­tary gam­blers were play­ing twen­ty-one. The craps tables were large­ly emp­ty, and sev­er­al were cov­ered with tarps.

It’s as desert­ed as an Arabian desert in here,” I said, as the seniors with whom we had entered dis­persed in search of their favorite machines.

Monday morn­ing,” said my father. “Early Monday morn­ing.”

Well, if Mom’s here, we shouldn’t have any prob­lem find­ing her. And I don’t think any­one else will be wear­ing a pink evening gown.”

Suddenly all the lights on the walls and ceil­ing went dark, and the casi­no was rocked by a con­vul­sive blast of sirens and flash­es of col­or, as if a series of fire­works were explod­ing just above us. Then, out of nowhere, signs sprout­ed all around us like holo­grams, announc­ing “Jackpot” and “Progressive Winner,” and flu­o­res­cent numer­als– a one fol­lowed by six zeros and then dol­lar signs–began to chase each oth­er around the walls of the casi­no like thor­ough­breds around a race­track. Strobe lights swiveled back and forth towards one end of the slot pit, and sev­er­al men in suits and ties, obvi­ous­ly casi­no exec­u­tives, strode quick­ly towards them, fol­lowed by a stream of play­ers.

Somebody must’ve won some­thing big,” said my father, and then in the sweep­ing light of the strobes, a tor­rent of what seemed to be rec­tan­gu­lar leaves came flut­ter­ing down from above.

Those look like real dol­lar bills,” I said.

They are,” said one of the exec­u­tives hur­ry­ing past. “When some­one wins, every­one wins,” and then he almost top­pled over a woman who, lean­ing on her cane, had stooped down to retrieve a bill from the floor.

They some­times throw in a C‑note or two,” said my father as he lunged in front of anoth­er cus­tomer to snatch a bill from the air. “Only a dol­lar,” he said, exam­in­ing it. “But it’s still a win­ner.”

The flow of gamblers—some occa­sion­al­ly stop­ping and stoop­ing to pick up a bill, oth­ers flail­ing their arms look­ing as if they were try­ing to dri­ve off gnats rather than grab­bing for dollars—led us to the end of the pro­gres­sive slots almost into the sports book with its lev­els of glow­ing TV screens and easy chairs lined up in front of them. From there, anoth­er exec­u­tive rolled out what appeared to be a throne and posi­tioned it against the wall. He pushed a plug into a sock­et, illu­mi­nat­ing the col­ored bulbs wound around its arms and legs, and after he aimed a remote at a point just above the chair, now as fes­tive­ly lit as a Christmas tree, an announce­ment, “$1,000,000 Winner!” flashed on and off above it.

The crowd, hav­ing swept the floor clean of all bills, gath­ered around, leav­ing an open semi­cir­cle in front of the space, into which anoth­er exec­u­tive led a small, elder­ly woman wear­ing a pink evening gown, wrin­kled in spots but still ele­gant. Rather than from the trea­suries of Ali Baba or Kubla Khan, this man, with his plaid jack­et and bow tie, his reced­ing hair­line and pen­cil-thin mus­tache, seemed to have arrived from the mid­dle of the last century—a species of seedy trav­el­ing sales­man, the guy, say, who had tak­en over Willy Loman’s ter­ri­to­ry. The small woman, of course, was my moth­er.

Oh, hel­lo dear,” she said, spot­ting Dad at the edge of the crowd near her. “Is it time for the bus to leave?”

No, not yet,” my father said, and then he turned to whis­per in my ear, “I have to watch her close­ly when it’s time to go. She wan­dered off once, missed the bus, and then we had to pay to sleep in a hotel room overnight.” He paused for a moment, and then added, “But noth­ing like this has ever hap­pened before.”

Let’s give a warm wel­come to the lit­tle lady,” announced the man with the mus­tache as he took Mom’s hand in his. “The year’s first mil­lion-dol­lar win­ner. But before we present her with her win­nings, we have some­thing very spe­cial for her, direct from Ali Baba’s trea­sure trove,” and anoth­er casi­no employee—this one very much one of the Khan’s min­ions, with his bag­gy silken vest and pan­taloons, his slip­pers curled up at the point, and a scim­i­tar by his side—emerged from the sports book car­ry­ing a vel­vet pil­low in both hands, like a tray. Rising above it, swelling up like a velour souf­flé, was a crown, a ring of tin­ny, gold lamé spikes around its base. Ribbons encrust­ed with pasty cos­tume jew­el­ry crossed up and down its pur­pled sur­face.

Oh, my good­ness!” cried my Mom. “I’m Queen for a Day!” and I sud­den­ly real­ized that the man who had escort­ed her up to the throne so close­ly resem­bled Jack Bailey, the host of that icon­ic day­time show from the mid-1950s, that he could have eas­i­ly escaped from my own infan­tile sub­con­scious to arrive there on that stage at the Kubla Khan to place a crown on my mother’s head and hand her a check for a mil­lion dol­lars.

Can I keep it?” asked my Mom. “The crown, I mean.”

I don’t know,” said the man. “It’s the only one we’ve got.”

I’ll pay for it,” said Mom. “A hun­dred dol­lars.”

A hun­dred dol­lars!” exclaimed my father from below. “It’s a piece of junk!”

Sold,” said the man.

It’s a piece of junk!” repeat­ed my father.

Hush,” said my moth­er. “It’s my crown and I want it. Besides, we can afford it. We’re mil­lion­aires, now.”

I joined my par­ents on the bus ride home, and my Mom wore the crown all the way back. I nev­er returned to retrieve my con­tacts from the fer­ry­man since I was unlike­ly ever to stick them into my eyes again. Instead, I decid­ed to be fit­ted for soft lens­es, just as my sis­ter had advised. Once we arrived home, I called the rental com­pa­ny and let them haul their Pontiac back them­selves from the wilds of South Jersey. That night, I slept in my old room, and in the morn­ing, I took a long, leisure­ly walk around the old neigh­bor­hood.

 

iii

The Kubla Khan is still stand­ing on that des­o­late tract of land some­where between the south­ern edge of the Pine Barrens and the salt marsh­es of the coast. But both Bernie Kahn and his impe­r­i­al dream are dead. The moat has filled in, the walls are crum­bling, and the Crystal Cavern, the grand north­ern entry­way to the casi­no, has col­lapsed. The pri­vate air­port has been closed for years.

None of the oth­er casi­no bus­es now comes close to Audubon Court, the assist­ed-liv­ing com­plex where my moth­er has been resid­ing since my father died from his mas­sive heart attack. There, the excur­sions arranged by the Social Director are rather des­tined for shop­ping malls and flea mar­kets, local restau­rants or an occa­sion­al din­ner the­ater, and the only gam­bling avail­able to  my moth­er are the week­ly Bingo games held in the din­ing salon. But Mom still has her crown, now some­what deflat­ed, stor­ing it on the upper shelf of her sin­gle clos­et, and I’ve been told by one of the nurs­es that she occa­sion­al­ly puts it on, usu­al­ly when she’s alone in the com­mu­ni­ty room, watch­ing day­time TV.

~

J. Weintraub has pub­lished fic­tion, essays, and poet­ry in all sorts of lit­er­ary places, from The Massachusetts Review to New Criterion, from Prairie Schooner to Modern Philology. A mem­ber of the Dramatists Guild, he has had one-act plays and staged read­ings pro­duced through­out the world. His trans­la­tions have been pub­lished in the USA, the UK, and Australia. and his anno­tat­ed trans­la­tion of Eugène Briffault’s Paris à table:1846 was pub­lished by Oxford University Press in 2018. More at https://jweintraub.weebly.com/