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.”
“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.
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.
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/