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PALACE on the LAKE
by
Daryl Wood Gerber

from
Fishtales:
The Guppy Anthology

I sat in the passenger seat of Lucy’s black Honda Civic, binoculars pressed so tightly against my face that I would look like a raccoon in the morning, but I didn’t care. My heart thudded as I peered across the lake and searched for signs of my errant husband at the Polka Palace. I would’ve driven myself, but my prosthetic leg was in the shop for repairs, and hopping along the icy lakefront on one leg would have been a little precarious.

“Are you sure Edward’s here?” Lucy whispered.

Did she honestly think anyone other than the two of us could hear? We had the windows rolled up and the lake was empty of swimmers and boaters due to the fact that it was colder outside than a Popsicle in an igloo.

“He’s here, all right. That’s his Buick in the parking lot.”

“That low-life.” Lucy’s mouth drew down in a frown.

My husband, a high school math teacher, had recently taken up ballroom dancing, but not to bone up on counting to three. He was more interested in learning how to two-time.

“What made you suspicious?” Lucy continued to whisper.

“I found the dance studio’s business card, a condom, and a little blue pill in his pocket.”

“A little blue pill?” Lucy sputtered the words.

“Viagra, darlin’. My silly husband thinks he needs it to be potent. He doesn’t, but he won’t listen to me.”

“So you still have--?” She nodded her head in a leading manner.

“Of course, we still have s-e-x.”

“Then why would he be having an affair?”

“Because he wants more s-e-x.”

Lucy could be a little prim at times. I never asked, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t dabbled in sex before taking her vows. She adjusted the white bib of her habit.

“Pull to the side, would you?” I said. The front window, clouding with fog from our conversation, was becoming difficult to see through.

“You’re not getting out, are you, Eileen?”

“And risk falling into the lake?” I sniggered. “Nah, I don’t think so. I’d either rust or freeze.”

“Not funny.”

A year ago, I had lost my leg, not my sense of humor. In a hit and run at midnight. By a white car that could have been driven by anybody, just not my husband. His Buick LeSabre was cherry red, the only flashy thing about him, and he had been out of town at a math competition. I rolled down my window. “Aha, there he is, doing the mambo with Hot-to-Trot Paula.”

“Paula Peabody?” Lucy sounded more distressed than me, probably because ours was a small town. We knew everybody in it. Back when Lucy and I were in high school, Paula was the most popular girl with the guys. We knew why. Everybody did.

“She’s not Edward’s type,” Lucy said.

“And what type is that, Lucy? Huh? If you were having an affair, wouldn’t you choose the easiest--?”

“Hide!” Lucy slumped in her seat. “Edward’s coming out.”

I scooched down, the upper rim of the binoculars barely peeking over the door’s rim. My husband stood on the pier, alone, a cigarette glowing in his hand. The Polka Palace owners had taken over the long-abandoned Lake Lodge Inn and reformed it into a wonderland of twinkling lights and music and oom-pah-pah. The twelve cabins went unused. Perhaps the owners intended to utilize them come the summer. Maybe they would consider having a Dirty Dancing retro weekend.

Edward took a long drag and breathed the smoke out in circles. More than once I joked that he would die from so much smoke ring practice. Nowadays, whenever I said that, he sneered at me. I wasn’t sure why. I had the feeling he couldn’t stand the sight of me any more because of the one leg thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t walk around sighing Oh, poor me. I couldn’t tolerate myself if I did. Jokes and humor are what keep me going. I post a slew of legless jokes on my blog. For example, what do you call a guy with no arms and no legs in a lake? Bob. What do you call that same guy a week later? Fish food. Ha-ha, right? Edward doesn’t laugh at my lame humor. Get it? Lame? My name is Eileen. Do you want to know how many times I’ve heard the joke about the girl who has one leg shorter than the other? Humor is good for the soul. I need all the help I can get.

“Eileen, I don’t think he’s seeing anyone,” Lucy said. “He’s alone.”

“Just because no one’s standing in the friggin’ cold with him doesn’t mean he’s celibate.” A tart taste crept up my throat. I willed it away, but it instantly returned. What did I do to deserve this...this pain? I’ve never wronged anyone. I obey the rules. Other than the bum leg, I keep myself in shape, drink lots of water, pet stray dogs. So why doesn’t my husband love me any more? I sucked in a long breath and told myself to snap out of it. Self-pity doesn’t heal wounds or broken hearts.

“He’s going back inside,” I whispered.

“Roll up the window, would you? It’s freezing in here.”

“I can’t. I’ll lose visibility.”

“Fine.” Lucy shoved her hands beneath the folds of her habit as I shimmied up to a full sitting position.

“I thought it was Paula he was seeing,” I said.

“Why?”

“I found orange lipstick on his collar. She’s always wearing orange.”

“Not everyone matches their lipstick to their outfit. If I did, I’d be wearing black.”

I chuckled. Lucy’s only foray into fashion was swishing on gloss for Easter and Christmas dinners. I said, “Okay, Miss Marple, who would be your guess?”

Lucy cut me a harsh look, harder than I thought she was capable of. What was she so uptight about? This wasn’t our first caper. Back in high school, I was Ethel to her Lucy. We short-sheeted the camp counselor’s bed, purloined chemistry exams, and toilet papered Edward’s house. Crazy stuff. She changed after sophomore year. Grew quiet. I’d asked what was wrong, but she wouldn’t bare her soul. I hadn’t pressed. We’d grown apart until two years ago, a chance meeting at the local diner.

“C’mon, who?” I said.

“I have no idea.” With the energy of a riveter, Lucy tapped her foot on the floor of the car. “How long are we staying here?”

Through the binoculars, I could see my husband back on the dance floor, cozying up to a woman of Amazonian proportions. He shot his arms out rigidly, like he did when he practiced air-dancing around the kitchen. The Amazon stepped toward him, grabbed his hand, and off they whirled, his nose nestled in her massive cleavage. I hated to admit that Edward looked more than capable as a dancer. Maybe that was why he wasn’t in love with me anymore. I couldn’t dance. Sure, I had seen Dancing with the Stars, and I had been told I could do what Paul McCartney’s ex-wife did, but that wasn’t me. I couldn’t dance before the accident. I sure as hell couldn’t learn now, could I? As a high school gymnast, my floor exercise routines always stunk. I was an uneven parallel bars girl. To this day, I could probably fly around the bars with ease. The dismount, however, would be a bitch.

“What else tipped you off?” Lucy whispered.

“Tipped me off about what?”

“About the affair?”

Duh! Our mission. To spy on my husband at the Polka Palace. As I refocused on the task, the sights and sounds of night swelled around me. Waves lapped the shore. An owl hooted then soared silently across the water, its yellow eyes eerie and haunting. Someone once told me that seeing an owl was a harbinger of bad news. I shuddered.

“Eileen!” Lucy flicked my shoulder with her finger. “How did you know about the affair?”

“Edward has been losing weight.” He had tried this diet and that, and then, pow, he started a serious regimen. Daily he did two hundred crunches. Twice daily he walked on the treadmill. And then he took up ballroom dancing. In just a few months, he had lost over eighty pounds and looked sharp. Better than sharp. He looked as handsome as the day I met him in English class. I will never forget the way he recited Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? He had looked straight at me, the right side of his face quirked up in a smile.

“That’s pretty flimsy,” Lucy said. “Do you have any other proof?”

“He’s humming all the time.”

“Humming?”

“Some song. I can’t place it, but it’s very familiar.” I tried a few notes but sounded like a screechy violin in desperate need of tuning. I can’t dance and I can’t carry a tune. Broadway is not in my future.

“I’ll pray for you,” Lucy said, a much-missed hint of humor dancing in her eyes.

Suddenly feeling like an army of creepy-crawlies had invaded my veins, I said, “I’m going up there.” I reached for the glove compartment handle.

Lucy snapped her hand over mine to prevent me from opening the compartment.

“I need your flashlight,” I pleaded.

“To do what?” She reverted to that no-nonsense nun tone that I loathed. “What are you going to do, Eileen? Make a fool of yourself? Accuse him? Men don’t appreciate women who gush.”

I snorted. Like she would know. I worked my tongue around the inside of my mouth. “I want to see the women, up close. That way I’ll be able to tell which one he’s been screwing.”

“Will you?” She seared me with a look. “What makes you so sure?”

“I...” I licked my lips, more chapped than ever. I had been biting them for months in an effort to hold back my sorrowful screams.

I released the latch of the glove compartment and batted away the tears slipping down my cheeks as flashes of the accident that changed my life whirled in my head. I had rounded the corner at Main and State, grocery bags in both arms blocking my sight like blinders on a horse. A white blur of metal smashed into me.

“Eileen, are you okay? Your eyes--”

“I’m fine!” Urgency raged inside me. “Please, Lucy, I’ve got to go inside.”

“No! You might slip and fall into the lake. We never found that ice fisherman last year, remember?”

“I’ve got my crutches.” I slung my arm over the car seat and groped for my sticks, but I couldn’t reach them.

“You’re insane,” Lucy said.

“Insanity isn’t a sin.” I winked brazenly and reached again for the glove compartment. “I need that damned flashlight.”

“He’s not right for you.” On more than one occasion, Lucy told me that I should have moved to California after college and become the girl’s Olympic coach. She said I squelched my dreams when I married Edward and settled down as a gym teacher. Maybe I had. So what?

“So who is right for me, huh?” My nerves felt like they were firing up for a rocket launch. “I’ve got one friggin’ leg, Lucy. I’m a gimp. I sit in a chair all day and do research on the Internet for peanuts. I can’t teach gym any more. I can’t support myself. My insurance ran out.” No matter what anybody says, get more insurance coverage than you think you need. You never know when you’ll be hit by a rotten driver who won’t fess up. I slapped my hand on the console and screamed.

“Stop it! You’re freaking me out.” Lucy gripped my wrist. Her chewed nails dug into my skin.

“Let go of me. I need to find out who Edward’s seeing.”

“And what if he won’t stop? What if he’s in love with her?”

“With one of those clowns in there?”

“Maybe she’s not a clown. Maybe you know her. Maybe you like her.”

“So I’m supposed to wish them well? Hey, you lovebirds, have a happy life. Don’t worry about me. I’ll just hobble alone into the sunset. Ta-ta! Not on a bet.” I wrenched free of her grasp, then opened the glove compartment and dug beneath a wad of papers crammed into the slot. A few of them flew out as I removed the flashlight. “For a nun, you’re sure a slob.”

She grunted.

“What are all these? Parking tickets? Don’t nuns have an agreement with the traffic cops?” I switched on the light and flared it at her. She looked as white as the bib of her habit. “You okay?”

“It’s cold.”

“Good deduction, Sherlock.” I started to shove the papers back into the glove compartment when one sheet, yellow and flimsy, caught my attention. From the Goose Creek Body Shop. “What’s this?”

“A receipt. Nothing.”

“Why’d you need your car repainted?”

“A dent.”

“What did you hit?” My heart started to hammer as another memory cut through my mind. A blur of white metal. I fell to the ground. The car tore away. As I lay on the pavement, head twisted, breasts pressing against a loaf of white bread, cans of Campbell soup clattering toward the gutter, I thought about the dinner I was planning on making Edward. His favorite. Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. I tried to move, but my leg wouldn’t budge. My foot was trapped beneath my ribcage. “What did you hit?” I rasped.

“Nothing. Give it to me.”

While I stayed in the hospital, Lucy had her car repainted. Black to match her habit, she said.

“Lucy?”

The blare of horns and shrieks of horror had been deafening. I’d passed out. Edward showed up at the hospital around midnight. He held my hand and cooed encouraging words, but something changed in him the next day when the doctor whispered that I would lose my leg. Edward didn’t cry, but he turned rigid, as if the thought of me without a limb was repugnant. And then he grew distant. A frosty smile, a withered kiss. We made love, but every time we did, it seemed perfunctory, like he felt it was his duty. Time drifted, he started humming, and then I found orange lipstick on his collar.

“It’s the theme from I Love Lucy,” I blurted.

“What is?”

“The song that Edward hums.” I made another poor attempt at the tune. “It’s you. He’s having an affair with you.”

Angry breath sputtered from Lucy’s lips as she pulled a gun from beneath her habit and aimed it at me. “He’s mine. He’s always been mine.”

I whipped the flashlight across my chest as if it would stop a bullet. “But you don’t wear orange lipstick.”

“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” she hissed. “Who’s been kissing my Edward?”

“Your--”

“You stole him from me.”

“Stole him?”

“He loved me, but then he met you.”

I gaped. Was that what had changed the dynamic between Lucy and me in our sophomore year? I’d met Edward on a warm day in September. The classroom windows were propped open to let in a breeze. I was wearing a floral sun dress. Edward sat to my right, Lucy to my left. He stood to quote Shakespeare and looked directly at me. I had flirted outrageously, even twirled a strand of my hair. He had winked at me.

“I never knew you were a couple,” I said in my own defense.

“He and I were best friends.” “Best friends aren’t necessarily--”

“Zip it!” She waggled the gun.

I smashed my lips together.

“You were so pretty, so talented,” she said. “How could he resist?”

What was she talking about? I was a geek back then. I had zits and no tits. Edward threw me a bone, and I gobbled it up.

“All he could ever talk about was you,” she went on. “I never had a chance until...”

“Until you hit me with your car.”

Lucy barked out a hyena-shrill laugh. The gun shook in her hand.

My stomach wrenched in a knot. “Did you try to poison me, too?” Last Christmas, I had gone to the hospital with severe vomiting. Lucy had brought my favorite yam casserole. Edward hated yams.

Lucy huffed. “The labels never tell you how much to put in.”

“And the mugging?” I had suffered a bout of bad luck since reconnecting with Lucy. None of the incidents had seemed related until now. How could I have been so stupid?

“You’re such an easy target,” she snarled.

I’m trusting. Is that a bad thing?

“I was supposed to die in the hit and run, wasn’t I?”

“You were supposed to die every time.” Lucy’s mouth turned down in a frown, like she couldn’t wrap herself around the idea that she had failed not once but three times. “Finally, Edward came to church to talk to the priest. He wanted to come to grips with your…your stump. He was making progress, but then one day, the priest was making a house call and Edward talked to me-e-e-e.” She dragged the word out, as if caressing it. “I told him you cheated on him.”

“You lied? How could--? You’re a nun, for heaven’s sake.”

“Not out of choice.”

“By default?” I swallowed hard. I believed in God. I had chosen my faith. It had wavered after the accident, but in the end, I held strong. “Don’t your vows mean anything to you?”

“Not since Edward gave in to me.”

“Gave in?”

“I seduced him.” She cackled. “Yes, me, the high school prude. Lucy Wouldn’t, they called me. Well, I would. Again and again. And I did. And Edward liked it. A lot.” There was a crazy rapture in her eyes. Had something about being a nun made her loco? Or was she loco before, and I had missed the signs? Did that say something about me? I’ve heard you can tell the merit of a woman by the friends she keeps.

“Get out of the car.”

“Lucy--”

“Out. Time for a swim.”

“Is that why you agreed to come with me?” When I’d first asked her to help me spy on Edward, she had resisted. “Were you hoping I’d slip into the lake like the fishermen?”

She growled.

“Does Edward know you tried to kill me?” Even in the dim moonlight, I could see Lucy blanch. “No, of course, he doesn’t. You seduced him when he was vulnerable, when he was steeped in doubt.” If only I could get hold of my crutches. I shored myself up, grunting to cover my clumsy attempt to reach along the side of the seat. My fingers grazed the seat adjuster lever. “What do you think Edward will do when he finds out?”

“Love me for putting you out of your misery.”

“I’m not in misery.”

“Sure you are. You want him, but you can’t have him.”

“And neither will you.”

I jerked the seat lever. The seatback lurched. As I tumbled with it, I hurled the flashlight at Lucy. It struck her gun with a clank. A shot fired and hit the dashboard. Lucy pitched forward, searching for the gun on the floor. At the same time, I groped for my crutches lying on the backseat of the Honda. I caught hold of one and lifted it, but I couldn’t get it to arc over the headrest. It wedged against the roof.

Lucy regripped the gun. “Say bye-bye, Eileen.”

As she fumbled with the mechanism to reload, I yelled, “Help!”

The sound of lapping water and the hoot of an owl was all I heard. And then footsteps. Smacking the icy path. A skid. A shout. The driver’s door whipped open. A hand reached in, grabbed Lucy by the shoulder, and wrenched her out of the vehicle. She shrieked. The gun fell onto the floormat. I lunged for it. Grasped it. Lying half on my belly, I swung it up and aimed.

“Don’t, Eileen, stop! I’m here.”

Edward peered over Lucy’s shoulder, and I caved in to tears and cascades of hiccupping coughs.

“You...you love her,” I said as I slurped moisture off my lips. “You’re having an affair with her.”

“No, I’m not. Did she tell you that? She’s been stalking me. She’s delusional. I’ve informed the priest.”

Lucy struggled beneath his grip. “Liar!” She tried to pry his fingers off of her, but he held tightly.

“I’m not lying.”

I scooched into the driver’s seat, slung my legs out of the car, and clambered to a one-legged stand. “Why didn’t you tell me she was harassing you?”

“Because she was your friend. I didn’t want to make you anxious. I wanted the church to handle it.” With one hand, he whipped off his necktie and looped it around Lucy’s wrists. She moaned as he pulled tight, and then she grinned, open-mouthed, like a monkey at the zoo who knew it was getting away with some lewd gesture.

I shivered and yanked my gaze back to Edward. He wasn’t entirely off the hook yet. “I found things in your pocket.”

“What things?”

I told him.

Edward wagged his head. “Oh, babe, there’s a simple explanation. Remember when I had to supervise that group of sophomores?”

I did. He hadn’t wanted to go, but the principal had forced him.

“On the trip, the kids were making orange Jell-o shots. I confiscated everything, including the condom and Viagra one boy filched from his father’s stash. I’d forgotten I put them in my pocket. The kid wrestled me for the junk and smeared wet orange Jell-o on the collar of my shirt. I meant to tell you about it.”

He looked like he was telling the truth. His eye contact was unwavering, and he hadn’t looked at Lucy once since he had arrived at the car. I said, “What about the Polka Palace business card?”

He smiled my favorite smile, where the right-sided dimple cut up his cheek and joined with the creases around his eye. “I found the card on the bulletin board at the grocery store. I thought dancing would shake up the workout routine, you know? I was getting tired of the treadmill. You were the one who said there was a spring back in my step.”

“And the humming?

He cocked his head. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re always humming the theme from I Love Lucy.”

His forehead creased. “No, I’m not.”

“You are.” I made another futile attempt at carrying a tune.

Edward burst into laughter. “Sweetheart, that’s The Theme from the Godfather. All men hum that.”

A flush of red-hot embarrassment swept up my neck and into my cheeks. What a fool I’d been!

He stroked my hair. “I love you. I’ll never stop loving you.”

“What about...my leg?”

“You’re my little leaning tower of Pisa.”

“Oh, Edward, you made a joke!”

He chucked my chin with his knuckles. “If you can, I can.”

I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him with abandon.

The next week, Lucy was put in a cell. Not a nun’s cell, a padded one. It turned out I wasn’t the only woman that she had tried to intimidate. Three girls from college and one other parishioner pressed charges.

As the memory of her attacks faded, I secretly took up ballroom dancing. A challenge at first. I hobbled for the good part of two weeks, certain the prosthetic would give out and I’d fall flat on my face, but after I blabbed my secret over a candlelit dinner, Edward set down his knife and fork and guided me onto the kitchen floor for a dance. Oddly enough, I didn’t care any longer how stiff and stupid I looked.

Getting the Polka Palace to host a Dirty Dancing retro weekend is my latest project. After that, who knows? Maybe I’ll work up the courage to return to teaching.