Everybody comes to Rick’s
by Naomi Johnson
'Turn that down. I said, turn that down!'
I can hardly hear my grandson's wife yelling at me for the racket her brats are making. I respond to her by using the one hand I can still move. No, I don't flash her the finger. I did that once and she took the television remote control away from me for a whole day. Sadistic witch. No, I just turn down the volume on the TV. Now all either of us can hear is the incredible din made by two undisciplined pre-teen monsters fighting over some video game. Does she go to quieten them down? You better believe she doesn't. As far as she's concerned the only sound to ever disturb the tranquility of her day is my little TV. And I don't have a hearing problem. I only turn up the volume when the demon seeds are making too much noise for me to watch my movies.
How did this happen to me? No, I know how it happened, I just don't know the why. One minute I was a spry 89-year-old woman living on my own, still involved in gardening, birdwatching and bowling. And the occasional evening of dinner, wine and a silver fox named Harold who was after me for my late husband's pension check. The next minute I was a stroke victim, with no ability to speak, unable to move except for my right hand. A couple of minutes after that I was a prisoner in my grandson's house and his wife, Patsy, was my jailer.
That's not very gracious of me and in fact my grandson, David, really cares about me. But he's not here that much, he works 10 to 12 hours a day. Patsy, who can't work up the energy to raise her own children properly, is hardly happy to be burdened with me. Not that the burden is so great. My husband left me a good-sized nest egg. Oh, shoot, why be modest? He left me a couple of dozen of those nest eggs. So David makes sure that I get good professional care, much better than I would get in an institution. Patsy doesn't even have to look at me if she doesn't want to, but she's made it abundantly clear that she considers me a waste of money, and she wishes I would croak so she could spend my legacy on tanning salons, fake nails and slot machines.
Being trapped in my body, in this hospital-style bed, in this one small room, while my mind works as well as anyone's – and in the case of Patsy the Prison Warden, better – it's just maddening. My only escape is Turner Classic Movies. I love the old movies, the flickering black and whites: Fred and Ginger, Hepburn and Tracy, Bogey and Bacall, Gable and Lombard. The great Hollywood stars are all dead, but I watch the movies and it's as if they are frozen in time. Like me, only I'm not dead. I just wish I were.
I keep the movies on almost constantly. What else is there to do? I want to be entertained so instead of lying here like road kill and being fed through a straw, I pretend to dance the Continental with Fred Astaire, I smoke with Bogey, I flirt with Cary Grant. I send myself away to a never-never land of murder and suspense, mystery and mayhem, elegance and wit, charm and daring, romance and heartbreak. When I watch the old movies I'm as sexy as Ava Gardner yet I'm as thin as Audrey Hepburn – actually, now that my only food is that Ensure stuff, I'm probably two sizes smaller than Audrey.
The noise from the next room finally abates and I return my TV to normal volume. Casablanca will be on later tonight but right now I'm riding with the Duke and Mitchum and a young James Caan to a place called El Dorado. Oh, I love this movie, especially when James Caan recites bits of the poem. It's by Edgar Allen Poe, and tonight the words have a deeper meaning for me.
'And as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow.
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be,
This land of El Dorado?”'
I drowse, and dream of finding my own El Dorado.
When I awaken it's to raised voices. It's not the TV set although I can see that Casablanca has started without me. It's not the kids either, they've gone very quiet. No, it's David and Patsy and they are quarreling. About me. Go figure.
'That old crone is driving me insane! You don't know what I go through, day after day--.'
'Honey, please, she'll hear you.'
'Everybody comes to Rick's.' That was Captain Renault speaking, in Casablanca. Oh, yes, I would love to go to Rick's. If I could just slide out of this shell of a body and into the television, I would head straight for Rick's Café Americain.
'You have got to get her out of this house! Either she goes or I do, it's that simple!'
'Patsy, please, darling. The doctor said she doesn't have very long…'
I sure hope I don't. I've been wishing I would die every day for the last eight months. If Patsy thinks she's going nuts she should try switching places with me. My chest hurts a little now. It does that when I get upset. But the pain is stronger than usual and I'm having trouble breathing. I tune out their voices, tune out the pain. I focus on Casablanca, its light and shadows. Ilsa is in the marketplace, and she tells Rick that unless he helps her, Victor Laszlo will die in Casablanca. And although I've seen this film maybe fifty times in my life, Rick says something just then that seems like a message just for me. And I swear, he's looking right at me when he says it: 'What of it? I'm going to die in Casablanca. It's a good spot for it.'
Oh, it is. It is. Casablanca is where I want to die, too. And I can feel my pain subside, fade as though it had never been, and now the Moroccan sun warms my face and arms. I breathe in the spice of incense and patchouli. I look around. No hospital bed. No Patsy. And I'm walking. I'm walking in Casablanca, and the merchants in the marketplace stretch out their hands and offer me their goods at discount rates. 'Special discount for friends of Rick.' Yes, I'm a friend of Rick's now. And I see Rick walking back to his 'gin joint.' I want to go with him but something tugs at me, ever so slightly. I have to glance over my shoulder and I'm surprised by what I see.
In a shadowy corner of the marketplace is a rectangle, like a small window. No, more like a TV. And through that TV/window I see my bed, that hated hospital bed. And I see me, lying frozen on the snow white sheets. But it's not me, not anymore because I'm here in Casablanca. The joy, the freedom rush up into my throat. I'm finally out of that useless body. I've escaped and I'm here with friends, Rick and Ilsa and Sam. I can't help it, I have to hum a few bars of 'As Time Goes By.'
I turn back but now Rick has gone. I run to the cafe, and I enter just as the police arrest Victor Laslow. And again Rick says something that I once thought was just a dramatic line in a movie, but now I know he's talking to me, he was talking to me all along, welcoming me to Casablanca. He smiles and says. 'It seems that destiny has taken a hand.'
Yes, it's destiny that brings me to Casablanca at last. But what do you expect? Sooner or later, everybody comes to Rick's.
© Naomi Johnson
Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in criminology. She joined a writer's group in 2008, just to get out of the house more often, and found that she enjoyed crafting short stories.