The first witch had a bad cold. Her voice was thick.
“When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in—in—in—.”
The witch sneezed. The sneeze dislodged her witch’s hat and it plummeted to the floor, nearly spearing Claude, the tubby gray longhair who was impersonating the witches’ familiar. The hat didn’t have far to go, since the witch was seated. Claude slumbered on.
Like a magician producing a vanished handkerchief, the first witch pulled from her cardigan sleeve a crumpled tissue. She applied it to her nose and blew vigorously. She readjusted her glasses, stuffed the wad in her sleeve again, and accepted her hat from the third witch, who had retrieved it where it lay next to the snoring familiar. With a sigh and an upward glance of trepidation, she set the hat on her head again. This was dress rehearsal, after all, and dress rehearsal meant hats.
She began again. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
The second witch was distracted by the passing of the Bingo cards. A perky young aide in a bright flowered polyester pantsuit swished down the hall carrying the distinctive box. I suspected that the second witch had a gambling addiction. Anybody involved in a nursing home production of Shakespeare ought to be addicted to gambling. What were the odds that the entire cast and crew would survive until opening night? The second witch screwed her head around to look at the clock on the wall behind her, and when it turned back, her hat listed to one side like a Vaudevillian sot.
The first witch, who had kept her eyes on the page in front of her, assumed that the second witch had not heard the cue, so she repeated her lines, louder this time, just as the second witch spoke hers.
“When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?” said the first witch.
“When the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won,” said the second witch. Her voice was a little breathy, and I wondered whether I should wheel the oxygen tank closer.
The third witch, who was in fact hard of hearing, stared at them, disconcerted. Had her cue been given or not? She decided that it had, so looking down at the page, she said in a rush, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
At this point, I was supposed to wave around a bedpan full of dry ice, but I knew the timing was off. Anyway, I didn’t have the dry ice yet, just the bedpan. And Guy, the sound effects man, was in physical therapy, so there wasn’t much point. But I felt the director’s eyes on me, so from where I was sitting, I waved the bedpan. I would save my strength for the performance.
The first witch and second witch looked at each other. “Not yet, Addie,” said the second witch, and reached over to pat the hand of the third witch. “We’re on the ‘set of sun’ business.”
The third witch frowned, still confused, but found her line and read it. “That will be ere the set of sun.” Her tone was tentative, but when she looked up again, the second witch gave her a thumbs-up.
“Where the place?” asked the first witch, shrugging her shoulders and showing us her palms—a daring move, since it had the effect of moving her script out of her sightline and causing her hat to wobble.
The second witch was tugging her hat back in place, and again took a few seconds to answer. “Upon the heath.” She pronounced the last word so that it rhymed with “death.”
“That’s ‘heath,’ Theo,” the first witch corrected her gently.
But the second witch had already realized her mistake, and corrected herself. “Heath. Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t see why it doesn’t rhyme with ‘death’ and ‘Macbeth.’ And anyway, isn’t that where heather grows? Why do they call it ‘heather’ if it grows on the heath?”
The third witch always kept a romance novel stashed under her walker seat, and they often featured covers depicting the locale under discussion, so she knew all about heaths. She said, “That’s a very good point,” and nodded. This time the brim of the witch’s hat did strike Claude on the rump when it fell, but he just stirred and rolled over. He was well padded. “There to meet with Macbeth,” she added, bending over with a grunt to pick up her hat. The move dislodged the walker propped against her chair, and it clattered to the floor. Claude opened one eye.
“I come, Graymalkin!” cried the first witch, and she rose from her wheelchair, bracing herself with one hand on the chair arm, and pumped the other fist in the air.
Happily, Graymalkin was not a speaking role. The actor playing it yawned, stretched, and closed his eyes again.
“Paddock calls,” said the second witch, and she gripped her cane as if intending to rise. We all knew that the first witch was the only one of the three capable of anything resembling a swift exit, and that was only because she could really burn rubber in that wheelchair when she wanted to. The second witch was constrained not only by her cane but also by her portable oxygen tank.
After a beat, the third witch looked down and found her place. “Anon,” she said.
Then the three witches grinned at each other. This was the part they liked best.
Together, they chanted, “Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air.”
Then they all turned to me. I waved the bedpan around again, just to show what a good sport I was, and wondered how I got myself into these situations. Worse, if Tom Nakagawa didn’t return immediately from his ring-toss session in the therapy room, I’d soon be playing Duncan, King of Scotland and pre-eminent murder victim.
“Bravi!” a voice boomed in my ear, accompanied by a two-handed version of thunderous applause. “Oh, that was perfectly lovely, ladies. And I think we made the right decision to rehearse with the hats, don’t you? By tomorrow, if you practice wearing them, you’ll have them mastered.”
This was the play’s director and its biggest fan, Julius Radcliffe-Jones, a.k.a. Jasper Riddle Jones. He was Jasper on his driver’s license, but I didn’t blame him for changing it. Besides, I had my own catalog of aliases, so who was I to squawk? The moustache and full head of wavy hair were real, though helped to their current color by a small unlabeled bottle on the shelf above his sink.
How do I know this? I’m a sneak—a professional sneak, as it happens, so I’m pretty good at it. Radcliffe-Jones also had a bottle of something stronger than hair dye secreted in the pocket of a jacket that hung in his closet, but I wasn’t about to rat him out. I had a similar bottle myself.
His enthusiasm for Shakespeare was genuine enough. And even though I resented the way he’d jollied me into participating in this dramatic extravaganza, his enthusiasm was infectious. The play had created some little excitement at The Elms Relaxation and Recuperation Center and excitement was in short supply around here. He’d said it would distract us from our pain, and he’d been right about that. The players loved him. And however he behaved when he had real actors and crew members to work with, around here he was everybody’s biggest fan—the unshakeable optimist. Under the circumstances, optimism was hard to sustain. The effort to sustain it probably distracted him from his own prognosis.
So I welcomed Julius Radcliffe-Jones in all his tweedy good cheer, and hoped that his name, his hair, his bright blue contact lenses, and his British accent constituted the whole of his phoniness, and if not, that I wouldn’t have to deal with the rest.
We weren’t doing the play in its entirety, thank God. Even Julius wasn’t that ambitious. There weren’t enough actors on the short-term care wing, even if they were supplemented by the few permanent residents who were still capable of reading, let alone reading Shakespeare. Besides, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy was still too long for our intended audience, who might be captive but couldn’t be relied upon to stay awake for five acts between Days of Our Lives and dinner, never mind the Elizabethan English.
“My hat keeps slipping down and covering my eyes and ears,” the third witch was saying to Julius, who sat in an orange plastic chair behind me, legal pad at the ready, taking notes. This was Ada Baker, a short, pleasantly plump African-American woman of indeterminate age in a flowered muumuu who spoke a few decibels louder than her sidekicks so that she could hear herself. Addie wore orthopedic shoes that probably weighed half as much as she did. Her short curly hair showed off the skills of the Elms beauticians, whom she visited regularly. “I’m so afraid I’ll miss my cue.”
“Addie, you’ve got to remember to put your hearing aids in,” said the first witch, Dottie Rivers, from her wheelchair as she dabbed at her nose. She spoke in a loud voice with exaggerated articulation. Dottie wore a plain white blouse under her thin, old-fashioned cardigan, a navy skirt, and pink terrycloth bedroom slippers. She had pinned her cloud of white hair under her witches’ hat, but numerous dislodgings of the hat had caused the cloud to hang lower until now it curtained her neck like a fogbank.
“I keep telling you, don’t worry,” said the second witch, Theodora Underwood. “We won’t let you miss your cue.” Theo wore an elegant gray pantsuit accented with red piping, reading glasses tethered to her neck by a slim red cord, and red high-top sneakers. Her hair, a thick, unruly mass that she sometimes pulled back in a ponytail or bun, showed red and gray as well. She turned to Julius. “Julius, are you sure you don’t want us to try some Scottish accents? It would be more authentic.”
“Theo, I take your point,” Julius said. “I really do. But I fear that your audience will have enough trouble understanding the Shakespearean English without unusual accents.”
“I couldn’t possibly do a Scottish accent,” Dottie said, blowing her nose again for emphasis. “But if I don’t get rid of this cold, they won’t understand me anyway.” She was a thin, pale woman with a long, thin nose now red and swollen from repeated blowing.
Theo was the tallest of the women, but we were all shorter than we used to be. Even in her wheelchair, Dottie’s hunched shoulders hinted at osteoporosis, and just looking at her made me straighten up and pull my shoulders back. Ada was the only one wearing a wedding ring.
“Positive thinking, darling, positive thinking!” Julius said. “I understood every syllable, but then, I know the play.”
“The hats are hard to keep on,” I pointed out.
“Yes, ye-e-es,” Julius said, forefinger to his lips and a deep frown furrowing his brow. “You’re right, Marge, of course, you’re right. We’ll have to think of something there. But a chin strap would be too—too—.”
“Inauthentic,” I said.
“Quite,” Julius said. “Perhaps all we need is a bit more practice.” He rubbed his hands together energetically as if demonstrating his willingness to pitch in and do his fair share of the practicing, though in point of fact he wasn’t wearing a pointy hat. “Shall we run through it one more time?”
Theo’s head swiveled to look at the clock again. Julius also raised his eyes to the clock. At this point, Helen, one of the physical therapists, advanced on the group and pointed the finger of doom at me. “Marge Smith, you’re up,” she said.
“Ah, well, perhaps not,” Julius said. “I see it’s time for Bingo. Well, I wish you all luck, and I shall see you at dinner. Why don’t you wear the hats for the rest of the day to get used to them?”
“Come on, Claudie,” Theo said to the inert pile of fur at her feet. “Bingo!”
Claude cracked an eye, saw the bustle around him, rolled to his feet, yawned and stretched.
They abandoned me to my fate.
There was a lot of that going around.
When I’d broken my leg, I’d planned to recuperate at home, surrounded by the comforts of home. My bosses had other plans.
Didi had gazed at me earnestly over an enormous bouquet of flowers and said, “We found a great place for you, M.J.—beautiful grounds, gourmet meals, excellent nursing care, and the best physical therapy around. Really, we’ve had excellent reports.” He let a blond lock fall over his forehead as he ducked his head and smiled up at me, a ploy he’d been using all his life to get his way. “They even have a cat in residence.”
“I have a great place already,” I said. “It has all that and two cats in residence.”
“Too many stairs,” his father said, frowning. Emile, founder of both Levesque Security and Quixote, Ltd., had been admiring the view from my tenth-floor hospital window. “And too many temptations.”
Both men were impeccably dressed, as always. Emile wore a gray suit that could have been dyed to match the precise gray in his eyes and his sideburns, while Didi wore a brown one that contained so many gradations of the color that you knew it was expensive. Beneath the cloying scent of hothouse flowers, I could detect both men’s signature scents, subtly masculine yet distinctive—Emile’s with a hint of pipe tobacco mixed with his cologne while Didi’s ran more to leather and horses. Otherwise, Didi, in his late forties, was a boyish image of his father. Gray eyes, wavy dark hair, strong jawlines, and trim, athletic builds still turned women’s heads. “French men are sooo sexy,” they’d sigh.
I looked at Emile. “Temptations to do what?” I said. “Just what is it you think I’ll be tempted to do with this cast on my leg?” I rapped it with my knuckles. “Take rumba lessons? Set up a limbo bar across the doorway to the bathroom?”
“If I know you,” Emile said, his native tongue still audible in his accent and intonation, “you’ll be weeding the garden on your first day home. You’ll be hanging from the gutter on your second. What you won’t be doing is your physical therapy exercises.” He crossed his arms and gave me a stern look.
I knew he’d come along to play the bad cop. Absent from the delegation was Didi’s wife Bernie, who had probably refused to take any part in their bullying.
“You’re not as young as you used to be, M.J.,” Didi pleaded. “If you don’t do your exercises and take care of yourself, you could be down for the count.”
I started to point out that physical therapists make house calls, then stopped. I folded my own arms across the sheet and studied them.
I said, “There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“Well,” Emile said, “since you ask—.”
So here I was, fresh from a star turn as bedpan waver, stumping along on my crutches to the torture chamber. My leg hurt like hell where it didn’t itch and I was paying an arm and a leg to have someone make it hurt even more—or rather, Quixote was paying. I was supposed to be “keeping an eye on things” at the Home, which meant keeping an eye on the people, but who or why I didn’t know because they wouldn’t tell me. That could mean that the whole bloody mission was just a ploy to get me here for my own good, but I didn’t actually think so.
It was driving me crazy. Who was I supposed to be watching? Mr. Nakagawa, a retired deputy chief at the FCC, was over at the ring toss. Mrs. Winchell, a counsel to the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, was throwing a ball to Mr. Banerjee, a cultural attaché with the Indian Embassy, and he was throwing it back. Mr. Sanchez, who had just negotiated a major trade agreement with Mexico, was stacking cups on high shelves in the occupational therapy section, using some kind of a gripper device with an extension. Ms. Amy, a lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association, was using a shorter gripper stick to put socks on, take them off, then put them on again.
I sighed. I knew my turn with the sock stick was coming. I looked over at Congressman Ballou, who was draped over the Swiss ball, a grimace contorting his face, and resolved to blow the joint before they tried that on me.
I lay down on the table and resigned myself to my fate—for now.
Not for the first time, the providential appearance of Jonas Lafitte saved me. Since I had my eyes closed against the pain, I heard his voice before I saw him.
“Smitty, Smitty, Smitty,” it said. “I knew that bike would do you in. I tried to tell them it was a mistake to give a machine that powerful to a speed demon like you, but they wouldn’t listen.”
I opened my eyes and looked into his. They were entirely too humorous for the occasion.
“It was just a Scrambler, for god’s sake, not a Streetfighter. And the accident wasn’t my fault,” I said. I closed my eyes again but that recalled an image of my beautiful blood-red Duc lying mangled on the sidewalk, so I opened them again.
“Of course, it wasn’t,” he said.
“Damn tourist driving a minivan and checking the map on his cell phone was about to take me out,” I said. “I didn’t have any choice.”
His eyes traveled down my leg to my cast. He’d seen me in a burqa, a kimono, a jelabiya, a sari, jeans, cargo pants, a bodysuit, a wet suit, a hazmat suit, several police and guard uniforms, a chef’s apron, a nurse’s uniform, and a nun’s habit but never in cut-offs. My visible leg looked like a map of the Mississippi watershed but reassuringly muscular. He nodded at the cast. “First time?”
“Yes,” I said. Setting aside the bullet wounds, my injuries up to now had been relatively light. In all my colorful career, the only broken bones I’d ever suffered had been arms and wrists and ribs and collarbones—one of each. To lose a leg, even temporarily, to a tourist on Dupont Circle was beyond aggravating.
His eyes moved up to my hair, which was mostly gray and short but longer than it should have been.
“Getting shaggy on top,” he observed. Lafitte always noticed things like that—one of the attributes that endeared him to women.
“I’m afraid to go near the beauty shop,” I confessed. “I’m afraid I’ll end up with a purple perm. Anyway, you’re shaggy yourself.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Yes, but it’s part of my look.”
The therapist was still pulling on my leg. “Miss Margie,” she said, “is this your son, your nephew, or your boyfriend?”
Lafitte winked at her. “Someone who wants to get her alone,” he said. “She could be done with this, right?” He had dark blond hair, always a bit messy, blue eyes, a day’s worth of beard stubble, and the kind of rugged good looks women go for. He always looked fresh from the shower after a fun-filled day of herding cattle or racing dirt bikes or rock climbing. His well-worn jeans fit him like a second skin and his white tee shirt showed off his muscles under his bad-boy bomber jacket. When he winked, he got his way with every woman except me.
So between the two of them they pulled me upright and onto my crutches, and Lafitte and I retired to the courtyard with the smokers and loungers. In the old days, this former group would have included Lafitte and me, but nowadays there were no smokers among the agents at Quixote. Smoking was a dangerous addiction to take into the field, where the scrape of a match or the glow of a cigarette end or the faintest whiff of tobacco could betray your presence. We still didn’t know how we’d lost Considine, but it was after his death that the non-smoking rule was instigated. In solidarity, Emile had given up everything but the occasional pipe, even though he had retired from the field by that point.
Lafitte looked around the courtyard, opened his jacket, removed a packet from an oversized inner pocket, unzipped it and brought out two plastic champagne glasses and a small bottle of Moët & Chandon. That explained the bomber jacket in July.
“We’re celebrating?” I said.
“Smitty, when I’m with you, I’m always celebrating,” he said. He unwound the wire, covered the cork with a handkerchief, and coughed loudly to cover the pop. He assembled the glasses, poured and toasted me. Then he winked and said, “I left something more to your liking in your room, but you have to find it.”
I grinned at him. Champagne wasn’t my beverage of choice, but it would do in a pinch. I raised my glass to him.
“All those warnings about mixing painkillers and booze,” he said, “I think it’s crap. What do you think?”
“All crap,” I agreed. I shifted in the chair to find a comfortable position, and winced. “Besides, I think I got the placebo.”
“Ah. In that case, drink up,” he said.
I looked across the patio to where a mother and daughter sat. It was a pleasant summer day in the low 80s, but the wheelchair-bound older woman was bundled up in a sweatsuit, blanket, socks, and slippers. She appeared to be sleeping, her head tipped forward, her chin resting on her chest. She was probably older than I was, but I have a bad habit of assuming that, with less reason, as the years go by, for doing so.
“There are worse ways to go,” I said.
He followed my gaze. “True,” he said. “Here’s to dying with our boots on.”
I clinked plastic with him, and the base fell off.
We eyed it as it rolled and came to rest next to his foot.
“It would probably be therapeutic if you picked that up yourself,” he said. He looked up at me, grinned, and said, “Permit me.” He bent to retrieve the base.
“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked, once he got the glass reassembled.
“Because you broke your leg?” he said.
I shook my head. “Not good enough,” I said. “They’ve got something up their sleeves.”
“Don’t know,” he said. “Just got back.”
“Algeria. Syria was last week.”
“Go all right?”
He nodded. “Well enough.”
“You’re no help.”
He gave me an injured look. “Smitty,” he said, “who else would bring you a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, a bottle of Moët, five pounds of Belgian chocolates, and a dozen donuts from Migue’s?”
I smiled. “Nobody but you, Lafitte,” I said.
“Damn straight,” he said.
I drained my glass, and for the first time in a long while, felt no pain.
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