by Minerva Zimmerman
Mayme put a cigarette in her holder and leaned back waiting for a young man to light it.
“Allow me,” said a voice from behind her. “Surely you’re not here alone?”
She turned to see a slim man with dark hair and sparkling brown eyes.
Mayme gestured to another blonde woman on the other side of the room in a short crepe gown. A gaggle of men hung on her every word as she held court near the bar. “My sister and her new husband are here.”
He frowned. “Which one is her husband?”
“The one in brown, Frank.” Mayme smirked. “Or at least he was when we walked in.”
The dark-haired stranger sat down opposite Mayme and leaned across the table with an engraved silver lighter.
She inhaled then blew smoke through pursed lips. “Thank you.”
She extended a hand. “Mayme.” His hand was cool to the touch.
“Call me Adrian.” He motioned for two drinks. A waiter brought two glasses of clear liquid. Adrian raised his glass. “What should we drink to?”
Mayme picked up her drink and proffered it in his direction. “To death.”
Adrian nearly dropped his glass. “Pardon?”
“To death. Everyone is always drinking to life and good health. Seems to me we’d all be better off buttering up the guy who has any control.”
“Ah, well then,” Adrian said, clinking his glass to hers. “To me, it is.”
Mayme swallowed the bitter liquid and grimaced.
“Don’t like the taste?” asked Adrian.
“I don’t drink it for the taste,” she said, taking a slow inhalation off her cigarette.
“I suppose no one really does.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, frowning. “Did you say, ‘To me?'”
Mayme tapped her cigarette. “I thought you’d be taller.”
Adrian laughed. “Usually people say, ‘scarier.'”
She humphed. “Who wants Death to be scary? You’re no Doug Fairbanks, but I suppose you’ll manage just the same. Shall we be going?”
Adrian crossed his right leg over his left. “There’s no hurry. You can finish your drink.”
“Might be awhile.”
He took a sip. “We’ve got time.”
Mayme pointed to a deck of cards sitting on a nearby table. “Do you play?”
Adrian leaned across to grab the cards. “It’s been awhile.”
Mayme accepted the cards. “You’re being modest.” She cut the deck, bridged it, and shuffled.
“What should we play?”
“There’s only two of us. How about gin rummy?” asked Mayme.
Adrian raised his glass. “This is the only gin I know.”
“I could teach you.”
“We haven’t got that much time.” Adrian took a long drink. He swirled the remaining liquid in his glass, emphasizing its lowered level to Mayme, before setting it back down on the table.
“What do you know how to play?” she asked.
“Mostly casino games, baccarat, poker, blackjack.” Adrian looked thoughtful. “And Go Fish.”
Mayme raised her eyebrows. “Go Fish?”
“We can’t play Go Fish in a gin joint.” Mayme stubbed out her cigarette and wiped her cigarette holder on a napkin before putting it away. “How about blackjack?”
“Do you want to deal?” Adrian cleared space on the table between them.
Mayme shuffled again and placed a card face down in front of Adrian, then one in front of herself. She turned up a seven in front of Adrian and a nine in front of herself.
He peeked at the face down card. “I’ll take another card.”
She dealt him a five. He smiled. “Stand.”
She turned over her face down card to reveal a four. She drew a six. “Dealer has nineteen.”
Adrian turned over a nine. “Twenty one.”
“Too bad there was no wager.” Mayme smiled as she gathered up the cards. “What killed me anyway?”
Adrian pointed to his own head. “Brain aneurism.”
She sighed. “And I thought the gin had finally cured my headache. That’s hardly fair.”
“I don’t deal fair.”
“Good thing I’ve got the cards then.”
Adrian took another sip. “For now.”
“Maybe we should play something else. Blackjack is over so quickly without any wagering.”
“Let’s wager then.” Adrian’s dark eyes sparkled as he leaned forward.
“What should we wager?”
“Time.” He took another long drink, leaving only a small amount in the glass. “If you win, I’ll order another drink.”
Adrian glanced at the four empty glasses beside him. “Weren’t there more?”
“Pardon?” asked Mayme, shuffling the cards.
“More drinks. More than four.”
“I haven’t been keeping track.” She put a card face down in front of him.
“Wait.” Adrian put his hand over Mayme’s. “This is getting ridiculous.”
She twitched her hand beneath his. “Time to go?”
“One more game.” Adrian folded his hands on the table. “But we’ll up the stakes.”
“More time?” asked Mayme.
“You win, and I’ll come back in a year.”
Mayme dealt herself a face down card. She flipped the next one up in front of Adrian-the jack of spades. “What if I get twenty-one?” The next card sat pinched between her fingers, still unseen.
“If we both get twenty-one, we leave immediately. No more games. No more drinks. A draw negates the deal.” Adrian straightened his jacket.
“But what if I win with blackjack?”
Adrian tapped the jack of spades in front of him. “There’s only one more black jack in the deck.”
The card in Mayme’s hand didn’t move. “What if?”
“You need the ace of spades and the jack of clubs for blackjack.”
Adrian leaned back and gestured airily to the ceiling. “If you get blackjack, I’ll take someone else.”
Mayme flipped the card-ace of spades.
Adrian lunged forward and flipped the card beneath. It was the jack of clubs. He flipped his own card-seven of hearts. Adrian tossed the card into the air. It fluttered back down to land in one of his empty glasses.
Mayme stared at the cards in front of her. Only when Adrian’s chair scraped against the floor did she look up. “That actually worked?”
He sighed as he got up. “For now.” He tapped the side of his head. “That aneurism is a ticking time bomb.” Adrian slid the jack of clubs off the table and pocketed it. “I’ll be back.”
She watched Adrian’s slim form walk across the room. He tapped her sister’s husband on the shoulder. Suddenly there were two Franks, one walking with Adrian toward the door, and the other slumping toward the floor.
At the door, Adrian waved. Mayme waved back.
Mayme’s sister screamed for help.
It was fall. Mayme stood at the kitchen window, watching the neighborhood girls play outside while she washed tin cans and flattened them for the next war effort salvage drive. Her daughter was in town for the week and would be by to visit in a few hours. As she turned off the tap, there was a knock at the front door.
“Coming!” she called. She wiped her hands on her apron and went to open the door.
A slim young man doffed his hat, revealing dark hair and sparkling eyes she’d never forget as long as she lived.
“Hello again, Mayme.”
She sighed. “I do not have time to have an aneurism.”
“Actually the aneurism seems to have cleared up,” Adrian said, stepping past her into the house.
“Then what is it this time?”
“Pneumonia.” Adrian hung his hat on the coat rack.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I just had a cold and I feel fine now. Haven’t felt this good in months.”
Adrian chuckled. “Are you really arguing with me over your cause of death?”
He looked thoughtful. “I might have.”
Mayme sank down onto the divan. “What happens now?” She put a hand against the side of her face. “I don’t want my daughter to be the one to find me. Surely there’s something you can do?”
Adrian unbuttoned his jacket and sat down in a chair. “I’m sorry.”
“Can I get you a drink?”
Adrian’s eyes swept around the room, looking at photos on the walls and tables. His gaze returned to hers. “Tea would be lovely.”
“Take just a minute. Let me put the kettle on.”
Adrian got up to take his jacket off. “No hurry.”
“Do you take cream or sugar?”
He hung up his jacket came to stand in the kitchen doorway. “Black, please.”
She took a tea towel off the tray of orange rolls and put several on a plate before offering it to Adrian. “My daughter’s favorite.”
“You’ve had quite a life,” he said, taking one.
Mayme shooed him out of the kitchen, setting the plate of rolls down on the coffee table in the living room. “It’s my life. I suppose I’m rather attached to it.”
He pointed to a picture. “Your husband?”
She nodded. “There’s no way he could find me instead? I might take him with me in the shock.”
Adrian laughed. “I don’t think you really want that.”
“Oh, I don’t know, he might be handy to have around in the afterlife.”
“Can’t say.” He shrugged. “I don’t really have anything to do with what comes after.”
The kettle whistled. Mayme got up to make the tea.
“Been a busy day?” she asked from the other room.
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Are you sure you don’t work for the government?” asked Mayme, setting the tray with teapot and cups down. “You sound like my son-in-law.”
Adrian wandered around the room as she poured the tea. He pointed to a picture of a young man in a service uniform. “This one?”
“He’s working at the Pentagon. I wish he and my daughter lived closer, but at least she gets to see him occasionally.” Mayme picked up another picture of an even younger man in uniform. “My nephew Charles. He came to live with us after my sister passed. He’s a radio operator in the air service right now, somewhere in the Pacific. Can’t claim to have raised him, but he’s close enough for government work.” She smiled as she motioned to the two blue stars in the window.
Adrian took the picture from her and looked intently at Charles. “Good boy?”
“As good as any, I suppose. Broke his share of hearts and caused some trouble, but he’s done right by his family” Mayme sat down and poured two cups of tea.
Adrian set the picture down and adjusted it several times to make sure it was sitting just so.
“Your tea is getting cold,” Mayme said.
“Sorry.” Adrian sat down and took the offered cup.
“You do a lot of this in your line of work?”
“Visit with those about to die.”
He took a sip of tea. “It happens from time to time.”
She offered him another orange roll. “Where you take off your jacket and sit down for tea?”
He smiled sheepishly. “Not usually.”
“That’s a shame. Seems like it’d make things easier.”
“I do what I can.” He pointed at a deck of cards sitting on the mantle. “You still play?”
“Bridge mostly, but DB and I were playing gin rummy the other day.”
“My daughter. She’s visiting for the week. They’ve just gotten the orders for her husband to go overseas. Thought it’d be nice for her to come out here and see people.” Mayme set down her tea cup and saucer. “Are you sure there’s no way? She’s got enough to worry about without me dying.”
Adrian got up and grabbed the cards. “I guess there’s always a chance.”
Mayme’s penciled-on eyebrows shot upward. “You can’t be serious.”
Adrian smirked. “As death.”
She chuckled. “You want me to deal?”
“Oh no, I think we’ve had plenty of your style of dealing in the past. It’s my turn.”
Mayme leaned back, putting her hands behind her on the sofa and gave him a reproachful look. “You don’t deal fair.”
“That’s a risk you’re just going to have to take,” he said, shuffling the cards.
“Do I have a choice?”
He placed a card face down in front of her. “No.”
“As long as we’re clear.”
Adrian gave himself a face down, then flipped up the ace of spades in front of Mayme.
Her breath caught.
He dealt himself the jack of hearts. “You know the bet?”
“Blackjack and you take someone else?”
He flipped over his own card. It was the four of clubs. Mayme’s fingers shook as she flipped over the card under the ace of spades.
Adrian was already up and getting his coat before Mayme could fully comprehend she was staring at the jack of clubs.
“Wait,” she said. “There’s no one else here. Who are you going to take?”
Adrian put on his hat. “I already took him.”
Mayme heard car doors slam outside.
“I’m sorry,” said Adrian. He passed by the Western Union courier coming up the steps, telegram in hand.
‘We regret to inform you… plane crash… body cannot be returned at present.’
Mayme numbly swept up the cards and tried to put them back in the box, but they wouldn’t fit. When she turned the cards face up, she spotted the problem immediately. There were two jacks of clubs.
Adrian stood there his gray suit nearly black with rain. His dark hair was plastered to his head and rain streamed down his face in rivulets.
“Don’t you have a hat?” asked Mayme. “You’ll catch your death.”
He smiled, but didn’t laugh. His dark eyes were unusually somber.
“Let me turn on the heat,” said Mayme. “Give you a chance to dry out.” She fiddled with the thermostat and the furnace roared to life.
Adrian stood in the open door.
“Come in and shut the door. Were you born in a barn?”
“I was.” His voice sounded strained.
Mayme pulled him into the house and shut the door. “What?”
“Born in a barn.” He shivered and rubbed his hands together.
Mayme guided him over to a kitchen chair and went to put the kettle on. “You’re freezing.”
He put his head in his hands. Rain dripped off of him on to the kitchen table, forming a halo of water droplets around him. “I walked around the lake.”
Mayme put a hand on his damp shoulder. “That’s three and a half miles. What’s wrong, Adrian? I’ve had a good life. I’ve seen my daughter grown, my granddaughters develop into fine young women.”
He raised his head, dark eyes meeting hers. “I’m not here for you.”
He took a long breath. “It just seemed rude not to knock.”
“Well, you’ll just have to take me too.”
Mayme laughed. “You can give life but not take it away? What kind of Death are you?”
“I do neither.”
Mayme grabbed a bottle of pills out of the cupboard. “I suppose I’ll have to help then.”
She didn’t see him get up, but certainly felt his cold hand wrapped around her wrist.
“No.” His voice was quiet but firm. “It isn’t your time.”
“What about those other times?” asked Mayme. “Weren’t those mine? Why can’t I go now?”
“That isn’t how it works.”
“Damn how it works!”
The tea kettle whistled but neither of them moved to get it. Her hand held the pills; his hand held her arm.
They both turned toward the voice. Mayme’s husband Carroll stood in the doorway to the kitchen. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Nothing, dear, we’re just arguing over who gets to die tonight,” Mayme said.
Carroll walked to the stove, moved the kettle to a cold burner before he took the pills out of her hand and pulled Adrian’s hand off her wrist. “Would you stop arguing with Death? It’s three in the morning and you’re interrupting my demise with hysterics.”
“I am not hysterical!”
“Whatever that is, with the yelling and the making faces at me,” said Carroll. “Stop it. He’s just trying to do his job.”
“Well, he’s not very good at it,” Mayme muttered. “He’s failed to take me twice.”
“He’s not going to fail this time.”
Mayme wrapped herself around Carroll. “I don’t want you to go.”
“I can’t say I’m excited about it myself,” said Carroll, “But it’s time. I can feel it.”
“I don’t want to deal with all of this without you.”
He kissed her. “No one ever does. I’m sorry to leave everything that’s undone. You can do it. You always could.”
They held each other until Adrian cleared his throat. Carroll stepped back, and with one final squeeze to both her hands, let go.
Adrian touched his arm, and one Carroll followed him out into the rain, smiling back at Mayme. The other slumped to the floor.
Mayme stood on the back porch as the two men got into a car. She watched the tail lights as they drove around the lake and finally disappeared.
She tried not to look at, or think about, the body lying in the middle of her kitchen, but she was crying when the dispatcher on the other end of the phone asked about the nature of her emergency.
“You could knock,” Mayme chided Adrian as he stood at her apartment kitchenette and made tea.
He shook his head. “You’d pretend not to hear.”
He sighed and brought her a cup.
“Who is it this time? Anyone I know?” asked Mayme. “Seems like I just saw you.”
“Careful, the tea is hot.” He went around and watered her plants before he sat down to his own tea.
“You never answer my questions.” Mayme took a sip and grimaced. “Too hot.”
“I said it was hot.” He flipped through a magazine on the coffee table. “And you know I can’t discuss why I’m here.”
“Could if you were here for me.”
He set down the magazine. “Well I’m not, so stop asking.”
“If the other ladies knew I had Death popping round for tea every time someone in the retirement community dies, I’d never get invited anywhere.”
“I heard they kicked you out of the bridge club. Something about winning too much.”
“Can’t kick me out. I quit.” She sipped at her tea again. “All those girls talk about is sickness and death. You’d think they were your mother bragging about your work, the way they’re always going on about who died or might die soon.”
Adrian snickered. “If they start showing baby pictures, let me know.”
Mayme shook her head. “I bet you were a skinny baby. All eyes and no meat.”
“Probably. How is the grandson?”
“Properly plump, and cuter than you were. Walking, talking, and making demands of the world.” Mayme wagged an age-shriveled finger at him. “You stay clear of him.”
Adrian set down his cup and threw up his hands in mock surrender.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“My friends are all dying and I can’t do anything like I used to.”
“You are a hundred and one years old, Mayme.”
“You’re older than I am, I don’t want to hear any lip.”
“Nobody invites me to anything either.” Adrian finished his tea and went to wash out the cup.
“I suppose not. You leaving already?”
Adrian shrugged. “Duty calls.”
Mayme nodded and went back to inspecting the inside of her eyelids. “Knock ’em dead.”
Adrian laughed. “It’s what I do best.”
Mayme opened her eyes and peered through the forest of tubes around the hospital bed. “I thought you’d never get here.”
Adrian looked at his watch. “I’m right on time. You didn’t expect me to be early, did you?”
“I know what he meant now,” Mayme said.
“Carroll, when he said he knew it was time.” Mayme tried to raise her head off the pillow. “I feel it now. It isn’t like any of the other times.”
“It’s been a good life.” Adrian came to stand close to the bed.
“It’s my life. There’s pride with ownership.” She looked at her daughter sleeping in the chair beside the bed, holding her hand. “A daughter, granddaughters, great-grandchildren.”
“Great-great-grandchild,” Adrian reminded her.
“It’s all your fault,” she said, fixing him with her gaze.
“If it wasn’t for that game of blackjack all those years ago, I would have shuffled off this mortal coil without any of it.”
Adrian smiled and his eyes sparkled. “Maybe, maybe not. I could have been bluffing about the aneurism.”
“You’re a horrible bluffer.”
“I’m better than you think.”
“Get my purse.” Mayme nodded toward the table. “No, that’s DB’s, the other one.”
Adrian came back with the tan purse. “What do you need?”
“There’s a cigarette case in the bottom.”
He frowned. “You stopped smoking decades ago.”
“You don’t think I know that? Open it, you stubborn-headed mule.”
Adrian opened the silver cigarette case and pulled out a jack of clubs.
“You should hold on to that,” she said. “Never know when it’ll come in handy.”
He squeezed her hand. “It’s time to go.”
“We should wake up DB,” Mayme said, squeezing his hand back.
“I’m going to die.”
About the Author
Minerva Zimmerman comes from a lineage of clever, long-lived women. On her great-grandmother Mayme’s 104th birthday, she told Minerva there were three secrets to long life: “Drink lots of water” (not that Mayme ever did), “There’s always next time” (this seemed to refer to food), and “Convince him to take somebody else.” After imparting this information, Mayme immediately pretended her hearing aid no longer worked and ignored all requests for clarification. Minerva has been meaning to write this possibly true story ever since.