Elegant beauty or not, Iris Brodsky is a 76-year-old walking catastrophe. She can’t even get her corpuscles to flow properly. Everyone assumes she’s crazy, but, in her humble opinion, that still doesn’t give them the right to call her a murderer.
She finally convinces Charlie Hamilton, that charming 45-year-old widower from the police department, that her late husband was the vicious Bulgarian spy she always claimed. Her own innocence, of course, is an altogether more complicated matter.
Charlie has his own reasons for believing in Iris and spirits her away just in time from the clutches of a publicity-hungry law enforcement establishment. But from the first inch of their transcontinental odyssey onward, the colorful pair inadvertently breaks one law after another. Not the most constructive of strategies, but it still doesn’t qualify either of them as a criminal. Or does it?
Until I Die
The True and Authentic Legend of Iris and Charlie
Part I. Femme Futile
Not many people dream of corpuscles, but Iris Brodsky did. Oversized, crimson, square corpuscles tobogganing one after the other through her bloodstream, snagging in the twists, turns, and intersections of her veins, blocking the gentler, white-coated variety from the execution of their daily rounds, and coagulating everything into a sluggish, ice-cold suspension like crystalizing red buttermilk. Yet when Iris still managed to pick up the phone to call her doctor—the young Cary Grant she misrecalled from her long forgotten teens—Doctor Grant refused to panic. Square corpuscles were an anatomical impossibility, the careful physician explained in his prim and precise English. If anything, the tiny, three-dimensional goodies had to be cubes. There really was nothing to worry about.
Nonetheless, Iris fretted all the way across town to the sympathetic therapist—the young Jimmy Stewart, of course—recommended to her by the disturbingly feminine Doctor Grant. In the taxi she imagined taking these days—ever since that giggling, wild-eyed Ernest Borgnine at Motor Vehicles yanked the license out of her hand—she could feel the elastic skin underneath her shocking red dress popping, pulsing, and straining under the punishment of the once square, now cubed, corpuscles. Not that the hyperactive cells exactly hurt—no, they were more a source of embarrassment. After all, who suffered from cubed corpuscles in this modern, health-conscious age?
“So has anything significant happened in your life?” the ephemeral Doctor Stewart inquired with the solicitous knit of his brows that had set so many earlier femmes fatales to swooning.
“Well, my husband died last week.”
“Besides that, I mean. Any major changes?”
“I don’t know… I did go to the grocery store on Monday instead of Tuesday.”
“Hmmm. Why would you do that?”
“My husband insists on fresh fish, and the fish swam in a day early this week.”
“But didn’t you just describe him as deceased?”
“It’s hard to say, really. And it was a salmon. I’m not sure how you tell the sex of a salmon.”
“No, I was referring to—”
“Oh! My husband. Not much to say about him. Like I told you before, there was a time when I believed he wore an angel’s wings—at least I might have. Not a bit like what they’ve been saying.”
“And who’s been saying what about him?”
“That all along he was a wife-beater, maybe even a traitor and a spy. Until he wasn’t, of course. That nice young man from the police force—”
“The John Wayne?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, at least the younger version without the eye patch. It was his idea that my husband tore the cyanide cocktail out of my grasp to quench his thirst. Cyanide looks so much like vodka, young man, although, as a practicing therapist, you probably already knew that. In spite of his many fine features, my husband could be quite rude about stealing my drinks.”
“So you didn’t deliberately murder him.”
“Heavens! Why would I do something like that? It was so much easier to let him kill himself.”
The young Doctor Stewart hemmed or hawed—Iris couldn’t quite decide which—and pored over his notes with a bitten number five pencil in his scribbling hand. Which gave her an opportunity to open her eyes and inspect the white bedroom ceiling with the crack in it she’d been meaning to fix since forever. The crack reminded her of the Mississippi delta, the way it had spread over the years, trickling out of the northwest corner and flowing through several lazy, flat, humid oases before it let out into the cobweb-infested chandelier. When her husband was younger, he would have noticed and given her a well-deserved smack for neglecting her wifely duties like that. But now, of course, he could see nothing—or everything, depending on his choice of religion—so Iris was either doomed or home free.
But at least she was home. And the strangely malodorous, gargling-clacking false-teeth noises from the bathroom reminded her to close her eyes and feign another five minutes of sleep before the fiend donned the crude and tacky boxer shorts he insisted on wearing around the house and disappeared into his basement workroom. She’d have to ask the young Doctor Stewart about that in a future dream. What good did it do to poison a dentured monster, if he was just going to show up again the next morning as if nothing had happened?
“What time is it?” Iris asked herself, either silently or aloud—she could never be sure which—and gazed out the filthy bedroom window at the dead oak in the side yard. A withered, yellowing leaf had sprouted out of one of the cross arms of the naturally abstract crucifix and set her to pondering the meaning of horticultural mortality. In spite of her grittiest efforts, the forlorn leaf had already survived two winters all alone, fluttering in the breeze, dripping with rain and melting ice, neither living, nor removed to the other side. As far as Iris knew, it wasn’t supposed to work like that. Leaves, trees, insects, animals, and even the occasional human were supposed to live until they died.
“What time is it?” Iris asked again, but still no answer. Of course, she already knew the solution to that daily conundrum. Her husband, the real and persistent version, was a human metronome with a built-in timer that had turned on and shut down at seven AM and nine PM every day for the last fifty-three years and counting. If she had her way, he would never gasp a breath of their fifty-fourth jamboree.
Yes! Iris laughed happily, at last a decision! Except that she’d reached this same Rubicon too many times to recall, only to lapse into her usual weakened, bitter, passively aggressive role. For the millionth time, she held her breath and listened for the tread down the stairs, the sudden blind stumble, the long awaited crash of the hallway bannister smashed to pieces by that hideous, aging body in flight. Instead, a distant door slammed and left her alone in the bedroom with the cracked white ceiling to feel her arms for rushing cubes of rancid, blood red buttermilk.
At least she was still alive and at home and not cast out on the sidewalk like a poor, starving Calcutta beggar. A beggar without a husband to despise, that was. An unfettered woman with a battered tin cup, a National Geographic glower the color of smoking embers, and a child-sized wisp of pretend-eternity hanging off her hip. Iris reminded herself to check on flights to India, except she already knew she’d missed this morning’s departure. She’d missed it every morning for the last fifty-three years and counting.