Ninety-three-year-old Faye Zuckerman, who was a good time girl in the 1940s and 1950s when – hell – it took balls to swing, put on her blue, rhinestone bikini and started to make her way to the garden where the last peach was waiting in the branches of the only tree in the grounds. She opened the door to her room and stepped into the hallway, and heard the door click behind her. That same click she knew from the many hotels she had stayed in, partied in, got high in. Her key! Shit, she’d forgotten it, but it didn’t really matter. She’d ask one of the damn care assistants to open it. Most of the old people in there couldn’t remember when to take a piss, never mind remember their keys.
She looked down the short corridor, lined with pastels of country scenes and black and white shots of grandparents and their grand-kids, the kind of thing they liked in here. She started walking, and felt the soft carpet under her feet. At least that was one thing this place had, nice carpets. They had been changed a couple of years ago. My god, the palaver, the fuss, the stress! For weeks before it was all any of them talked about, how were they going to get to the TV room, where were they going to eat, what was the carpet going to be like, what colour would they choose. Endless conversations going round and round saying the same damn thing. One day, that’s all it took, one damn day. Diarrhoea yellow. Who in God’s name chose that colour? But give them one thing, it felt good. Your feet sank into it, you could feel it between your toes, it was soft and lush. It felt like grass should feel, it felt alive.
She came level with ‘Haystacks in Autumn’. For Christ’s sake, when else do you have haystacks, tell me that? she thought. She’d seen art, real art. There was a gangster she’d known, back in the day, and he’d had art that would blow your socks off. Klimt, Picasso, Pollock, a whole load of stuff. Some of it stolen of course, most of it he’d paid for. He’d say to her sometimes, that if he wasn’t a gangster, and if the racket didn’t pay so well, he could have run a gallery and mixed with all those artist types. Sick bastard though, made her dress in pigtails and a little yellow dress and piss on him.
What would you make of that, she thought to herself, eyeing the innocent-looking grandfather playing with a kid on the next picture. The old guy was sitting on a bench and reaching down to pick up a toy, the curly-headed boy on the ground looking up at him laughing. She thought of her only grandchild, in his fifties now; he had the same thinning hair and the same slouch as her son, who’d died of a coronary back in ‘84. Would have been pleased to know he’d gone that way. No fuss, everything neat and tidy. He’d been an accountant in a small firm downtown. Her grandson, Chuck, came to visit regularly with his wife, Belinda, a sensible woman who would keep mending their clothes till they disintegrated, even though she didn’t need to, and insisted they saved and had life insurance and went to the same low budget theme park for their holidays every year. What would Sonny think? He was Faye’s third husband, a beast of a man. Didn’t slap her about much, nothing more than normal anyway, normal back then, but when they were out he would start a fight even if he just thought some fella looked at him funny. No wonder they knocked him off. When she heard, her first thought was that she couldn’t believe he’d lasted so long.
She should be grateful they came, Chuck and Belinda, but they depressed the hell out of her. No imagination, no balls. Tommy, at least there was some hope there. The teenage son they dragged along once in a while, in his skater’s gear, bored to death, hating the smell of the place, the sickly smell of old people set in their ways, shuffling towards the exit. Good for him, you need to hate stuff, you need the motivation. Hate stuff, love stuff, just get your ass in gear and do something. Make a difference. He has it in him, she thought, maybe. Not like this guy, the guy in the next picture. This schmuck, standing by a pond grinning gormlessly to himself. He was what was wrong with America. Self-satisfied, thinks he’s happy but he’s too damn lazy to get out of his own way.
The picture of the schmuck was at the top of the stairs. She looked down to the lobby, where one of the care assistants, Livingston, was sitting at the front desk. He looked back at her kindly. He was a tall, well-built young black who was studying medicine at the local college and working part time to earn some pin-money. She looked at the stairs.
‘Where are you off to Mrs Zuckerman, all dressed up?’ he asked her politely.
‘Fuck you, Livingston,’ she replied, her concentration focused on the top of the step. She glanced at the damn stair lift, then looked back at the three, carpet-covered steps. They were shallower than normal and wider, as if they led down into a swimming pool or the sea rather than another floor.
‘Now Mrs Zuckerman, no need to be like that. Do you need some help down those stairs?’
‘Do I look like I need some God damn help?’ she shot back at him. ‘What do you think I am, some invalid, some helpless old woman given up the ghost?’
‘Of course not, Mrs Zuckerman. Don’t get yourself all excited -’
‘Don’t tell me not to get excited. What do you think, I can’t take a bit of excitement, you don’t know what excitement is.’ She turned and started walking towards the other side of the corridor, where there was a bannister leading down the stairs. She walked parallel to the top step, but not too close. ‘I’ll tell you what excitement is, it’s skipping out of a gin joint while the cops are letting off shots and people are throwing chairs and glasses, and all hell is breaking loose. That gets the heart going, let me tell you.’
‘You sure seen some history, Mrs Zuckerman.’
‘You’re damn right, I seen some history. Seen it up close and personal. Hell I made some of that history.’
‘Not going to take the stair lift?’
‘No, I ain’t going to take the damn stair lift. What do I need that damn thing for? I can still walk down a few stairs.’
‘I bet you can, too.’
Livingston was all right. He came from a poor family, worked hard, got a scholarship and wasn’t pissing it against a wall. Could recognise a joke, too, not like most of the people who worked in this damn place. Women, mostly, dried up and humourless, in need of a good fuck, not that they knew it. They walked around in their officious way, providing assistance with pinched cheeks and rictus smiles and you could tell that inside they were burning up with frustration and disgust and all they wanted to do really was push you down the stairs, not that they’d have the imagination or guts to do it. You couldn’t help for feeling sorry for them, if they weren’t so damn annoying.
She reached the other side of the corridor and turned to face the stairs once more, putting her hand on the shiny bannister. Her hand was thin and knobbly, the veins stood out and there were liver spots across the back of it like the spots on a bird’s egg. But it was still a good hand, still strong. She felt her hand gripping the bannister tightly, and it gave her confidence and she put out her right foot, which hovered and shook in the air for a moment before she started lowering it down towards to next step. It wasn’t far, she reminded herself, the steps were shallow and the drop only a few centimetres and then she would feel the soft carpet on the sole of her foot again and feel it sink into the pile.
‘Looking good there Mrs Zuckerman,’ Livingston called over.
‘Course I’m looking good,’ she called back, her foot finding the carpet and the firm step below it. ‘I was born looking good. I once won a competition in the newspaper for the best figure in the city. Betcha didn’t know that, eh?’
‘No, ma’am, I didn’t.’
‘Well it’s true. Best figure in the city. There was a time I couldn’t move for boys hitting on me, like wading through a swarm of mosquitoes it was. Not that you’d know it now.’ She shifted her weight onto her right foot and brought the other one down onto the same step. What no one knew, because she’d never told anyone, was that she won that competition because one of the Chicago bosses paid off the newspaper editor. He wanted Faye to win rather than another girl who was a favourite of one of the other gang bosses. But when she went to collect her prize of fifty dollars and have her picture taken for the paper, it hadn’t mattered one damn bit to her. She’d been around the block enough times to know that you always needed a helping hand, whatever you did, and it wasn’t just everyone who would have a boss pay for them to win a competition.
She put out her right foot again and started lowering it. This time it was easier, the step didn’t feel quite so far and soon she felt her foot touch the carpet. Then she adjusted her hand on the handrail, bringing it down so it was level with her foot, and made a mental note that she needed to do that before she started on the next step. Next the third step. She looked up and saw Livingston watching her, clenched her teeth, and was about to lift her right foot but just before she did so she remembered about her hand. She rocked back slightly, so all her weight was right over her two feet again, and slid her hand down the bannister. Then she put out her right foot and started lowering it, which would be no damn problem; she’d done it twice already hadn’t she? But she could feel she was tired and she wobbled slightly before gripping the bannister harder with her hand. Thank god for that good hand. Across the foyer, Livingston rose out of his chair.
‘And where the hell do you think you’re going,’ she barked at him. ‘Sit the god-damn down.’ She saw him hesitate. ‘I said damn well sit down, there ain’t no problem. I’m steady as a rock.’ Reluctantly, he lowered himself onto his chair again. Her right foot resumed its journey, moving down from the step to the floor. And she didn’t feel tired anymore, she felt exhilarated, because she knew she was going to do it; there was only a few more centimetres to go and then she was there, her foot pressing into the carpet like it was pressing into soft, wet sand as if she would leave a footprint when she walked off. The last thing was the other foot, but that was easy, all it needed was to be taken up into the air, just like that, moved forward and then placed down next to the right one, for two footprints in the sand, side by side.
‘There you are Livingston,’ she cried in triumph. ‘Didn’t think I’d do it did you? Well, three measly steps ain’t going to stop me any time soon. Don’t know why I even walked down them, I should have just jumped!’
‘Never had any doubt, Mrs Zuckerman. Where are you off to now?’
‘I’ll tell you where I’m going, I’m going out to pick that damn peach that’s hanging there on that tree and then I’m going to bring it back here and cut it up and eat it. It’s the only thing worth anything in this whole place, that tree, and no one notices it.’
‘That sounds pretty good. How are you going to get it.’
‘I’m just going to reach up and pick it. I’ve been studying it from my window, it ain’t high.’
‘It’s pretty hot out there still.’
‘Yeah, I know, you’ve known it when it was really hot.’
‘Don’t you get smart with me Livingston. You’re damn right, I’ve known it when it was hot. It used to melt the roads right under our feet. Back then you knew when it was summer.’ She started out across the foyer, the last few feet of carpet before she got to the door. ‘You got to set yourself goals, and then you got to go for them. Just like this town. You know a hundred and fifty years ago, this whole place was just a swamp. Not more than 200 people living here, busting a gut to feed themselves and their families. And now look at the place, the greatest city in the world.’
And then she was there. The automatic doors slid open, and the light, as if it were too delicate to properly penetrate the glass, seemed to flood in and around her, and she felt its warmth on her face and neck, on her once-famous chest, on her bare arms and legs. Out there was the peach, the last peach hanging on a branch, and there was nothing to stop her now, so she kept on going, out into the light.