Friday, July 29, 2011

"Be a Lady" [published fiction]


BE A LADY
  
Copyright by R. L. M. Tipton  ~

Gladys Bea McIntyre was a familiar sight in her neighborhood. She was an elegant woman of some seventy years of age whose shapely legs beneath her dress still had the power to turn even younger mens' heads. Always on her left arm, along with a capacious old-fashioned clip-top purse, hung a walking cane; this cane never touched the ground as her fancy high heel shoes tapped off the miles.
This woman, living alone, chose to spend her golden years helping others and in honest industry. Many a child had learned to play piano at her side, and the church held no function without this lady at the heart of it. The craft galleries in her area vied for her attention, as the tatting of fine hand-made lace was almost a lost art. And in her heart still resided her beloved Walter, gone these many years.
The first of the month was always busy for Gladys Bea; her check came in at the post office and she needed to go pick it up. She had a standing appointment to get her hair done at eleven in the morning the same day. After that, it would be time to go to the women’s group meeting at the church, best done while her hair was freshly groomed and presentable. Following that, lunch with some of the other Red Hat Society folks at Marion’s Restaurant, after which she needed to stop in at a local gallery and pick up the money for the items that had sold in the past month. Then she’d be off to the bank to tend to her deposits. It would be a long day indeed, for a person her age.
She picked up her check at the post office after a long wait. The place was unusually crowded. Gladys was late to her salon appointment - almost unheard of for her - and almost didn’t make it to the restaurant in time to catch up with her friends. Everything all day long had seemed to go wrong; it seemed that her luck had abandoned her. Wishing Walter was here, since he always could sort things out so easily, she headed off to the gallery.
The woman she needed to see wasn’t there, so she had to wait for almost an hour, fuming quietly behind her polite smile. When the gallery director finally arrived, she was in a talkative mood, and kept Gladys Bea for far longer than she had scheduled for, this busy day. By the time she was finally released from the clutches of the enthusiastic check-bearer, she was running late.
Popping out the gallery door, she turned to go to the bank, only to discover her way blocked by a street party that she’d forgotten was set for that day. Dismayed, she sat on a bench nearby and thought about what to do. It was only a couple of blocks to the bank, but by the time she got there, after fighting her way through that mess of dancing idiots, ice cream-smeared children, and trash on the street, it would be too late to get anything done. The bank closed for the day very soon.
After a few minutes, she straightened up with new resolve. In her mind, she could hear Walter saying to her, "Go. You’ll be late." Walter had hated being late.
He was a World War II veteran, considerably older than she, and a highly disciplined man. Gladys Bea was his treasure, and he let the world know it. In all the years they’d been married, he’d never missed even one of her birthdays. Every time, roses and a big box of her favorite chocolates, then dinner and dancing; there was all his love shining in his eyes just for her. That is until his cancer had taken such a toll on him that they just sat together listening to Glen Miller records on the old phonograph they’d had sitting in antique splendor beside the bed. It had broken his heart to be unable to hang up his own clothing, to need help for the simplest functions. But she hadn’t minded doing these things for him; she loved him so very much that it hurt.
With the thought in mind that she need not be late, she marched across the broad sidewalk to go through the dark alley that led off Rimbaud Boulevard and onto Welch Lane. It was a dank, grimy hole between the buildings, further crammed with overflowing garbage cans. It crossed Gladys Bea’s mind that this was the same area in which several older people had lately reported having been robbed and beaten, but by the time she thought of it, she was almost halfway through, almost into the darkest portion. Mindful of where she put her feet, not wanting to ruin her good shoes, she slowed a bit, clutching her purse a little closer with her right hand. A pile of garbage on the left made her swing wide to the right, near a swampy-smelling puddle of stagnant rainwater. She’d have gone more to her right, but the water prevented it.
Just as she looked up from dodging the messes underfoot, a rough hand grabbed her left elbow.
"Alright, granny," he smirked, "Gimme that fat check you got packin’ there in that ol’ purse." His face was greasy looking and his hair hung in lank strands around his sullen features.
As she shrank back from him instinctively, she heard Walter again. "Remember to act submissive. Men rarely expect a woman to do anything else." Her eyes having fully adjusted to the dim light, Gladys Bea knew exactly what to do.
"I … I’m sorry. Of course. Please don’t hurt me." She avoided eye contact.
"Just gimme the goddamn money, lady. I ain’t got all night." He shook her hard by the arm, then stepped back a step, still gripping her arm in one hand, flicking a wicked little knife open and closed repeatedly in a restless, threatening way. She’d have a bruise later, but she didn’t think on that for long.
"Alright, just let me get it, and then I’ll go. Please…." She fumbled with her cane, moving it back a few inches, rearranging the straps of her big purse. "I’m sorry. This latch is hard to handle. I’ll have to use both hands."
Snorting in disgust, the man dropped her arm and moved a step more in front of her, as she had intended. With perfect calm, she flipped open the purse catch with her right hand, holding it in her left, and shifted her right foot behind her as she did.
She reached into the purse with its several hundred dollars of hard-won money, her sole means of living, and grasped the familiar weight of the stubby .38 Squeezer that lay atop it all like a simple paperweight. Gladys Bea swung the pistol up, braced it across her left wrist exactly as Walter had taught her to, and shot the young man twice, neatly in the breastbone.
Just at that moment, a burst of fireworks went off on the street she’d just left, and all the noises blended into once. Later she thought that all the luck of the day was concentrated in that one moment. She could hear Walter, "Don’t leave any lying witnesses, my lady." A quick peek around showed no windows in the alley, and she was all alone with a dying man.
Careful, she stayed back until she saw he wasn’t moving, not that she didn’t trust the two .38 slugs to do the job, that close in. Then she leaned a little closer. A fly walked across his eyeball; he didn’t move. Disbelief lay in his slack features. His hands clutched the bloody front of his unkempt shirt.
The old woman reached out and patted the man’s cheek gently. All dead deserved respect, she felt. After all, this was someone’s son, someone’s grandson, and even perhaps someone’s husband or father. If she and Walter had ever had children, they’d surely not have acted like this one. Walter surely wouldn’t have stood for it. All the luck she asked for now was that the rats didn’t find his body before his family got a chance to tell him goodbye.
"I’m sorry, sonny. Luck was just against you today. And here I thought it was my day to have bad luck." Gathering herself and tucking the pistol back into hiding, she got out of the alley as quickly and quietly as possible. It sounded like the street party was spreading closer.
Once on Welch Lane, she turned back toward her apartment, away from the street festival. Live music was drawing in the crowds, it seemed. She cocked her head for a second to listen to the song the band was singing. It was "Luck Be A Lady Tonight".
Gladys Bea smiled, humming along with them. She adjusted the cane that Walter had given her just before he died so that she could see her watch. No doubt, her man was sitting at the right hand of the Archangel Michael, discussing defense strategies under the watchful eye of his God. Bless him, dear Walter was still watching out for her just as always. He’d been watching out for her on the day he’d insisted on her having the ugly little gun to carry, instead of the elegant, slim little .25 caliber she’d wanted. "You’ll need a man-stopper if you ever need one at all," he said. "That little .25 won’t do what this .38 will." His voice still echoed in her mind, her heart and soul wishing it were real.
A shopkeeper standing outside his store while listening to the music smiled at the elegant old lady as her pert legs carried her up the sidewalk in the dimming light of the late spring evening.
After all, she was going to be early getting home. The bank business would simply have to wait until tomorrow. Gladys Bea had in mind to go home and have a nice hot cup of tea while she cleaned her gun - just as Walter had taught her to do. One must do things right, and she didn’t want to be interrupted for a while. Maybe she’d have time to sneak a little glass of wine and some supper.
Another glance at the watch showed it was almost time to feed the cat, and then there was that piano lesson she’d had scheduled for seven, with the Ledbetters' bouncy little boy. That child had a gift, she mused as she rubbed her right wrist a bit.
As Walter always said, tomorrow was another day.
*