My name is Edith Grabowski. I’m eighty-one years old, and I had sex last night.
I wanted to tell you that up front and get it out of the way because that’s what all the TV people want to know. They giggle and use silly nicknames for sex when they ask. I don’t think they’re getting any.
I’d never been on national TV in my life before last week, and now I’ve been on six times in four days. In a few minutes, it’ll be seven.
I’d also never been to Los Angeles. We’re in the green room right now, but my husband Ambrose says its blue. He’s wrong, but I don’t say anything. That’s how you make a marriage last.
We’re newlyweds. But you knew that already unless you’ve been on another planet or just come out of a coma. We were married on the Today Show by Al Roker, because he has a notary license. They say ratings went through the roof. We’re rich now, too.
One of those network hospitality ladies in a blue blazer is asking me if I’m okay again. Do I want a pillow or some juice? I tell her I’m fine. She pats my hand and smiles that stupid false smile the stewardesses give you when you’re getting off the plane. You just want to smack her.
They usually want to know about the sex right after they ask how on earth we stayed alive. They still can’t believe we didn’t all die. What’s not to believe? We just . . .
Uh-oh, here comes another woman in a blazer. This one’s blond. Am I all right? Of course I’m all right! I can take care of myself. That’s how I got to be eighty-one. I’d like to see you make it. And don’t touch me!
It’s like this every time, every show. Just because I’m eighty-one, they treat me like some kind of magical little pet that can only understand four simple commands and will crap itself if they don’t watch out. I’m the one who gets the most questions on camera because I say what’s on my mind. Fifty years ago I was just pushy, but now I’m a “character” or a “live wire.”
The networks go nuts over any story where an old person shows spunk. That’s why you hear so much about Florida these days. They might as well just move their studios down there. Seems every other month one of us from the bingo hall makes the rounds of the TV shows. Last time it was that seventy-six-year-old woman from Fort Lauderdale who bit the pit bull.
That’s true. She was walking her poodle, Mr. Peepers – TV made a big deal about the name – and some lovely neighbors raising pit bulls in their backyard car-chassis farm left the gate open. Anyway, the pit bull wouldn’t let go of Mr. Peepers, so she bit its ear and it ran off yelping. The way the media reacted, you’d have thought she cured cancer or invented a car that ran on tap water.
So I guess it’s my turn. I don’t mind telling the story again, but they always bring up the sex, like at the mere mention of it I’m going to do a handspring for them.
Or maybe: “Yippeeeeee!”
I shouldn’t complain. I’m having the time of my life. I’m married to the man of my dreams. I’ve had a crush on Ambrose since I was seventy-eight.
They just told us to get ready here in the green room. They say we’re about to go on. We have notecards about possible questions. About what kind of neighborhood it was.
They say it was such a quiet neighborhood. It’s always a quiet neighborhood. Then the whole place goes berserk and everyone acts surprised. But they shouldn’t. If you ask me, it’s just people. Even the quietest neighborhoods are just two or three arguments away from a chain-reaction meltdown.
We can hear the audience applauding. They want the story. Can’t say I blame ’em. So did we. I mean, me and my girlfriends - we were just trying to stay alive. We didn’t see a tenth of what was going on in the neighborhood. Same with everyone else. Things were happening all over the place. Everyone only saw a small part of the whole picture, but we were able to compare notes at the rehearsal dinner and pretty much piece it together. The entire wedding party was involved in some way. My bridesmaids were all with me, trapped as we were. Ambrose probably saw as much as anyone, riding up front in the big chase after the shootout. His best man was Jim Davenport. Poor Jim Davenport. He was such a nice, gentle man. Still is, but I don’t think he’s ever going to be right again. It was just one thing after another; I still don’t know how he held up. The ushers, Ambrose’s neighbors -- they saw a good bit, too. Then there was Serge. Serge had actually been Ambrose’s first choice for best man, but nobody knows where he disappeared to after the gunfire started, and the explosions and all the car wrecks and the electrical transformers blowing up and strippers running naked in traffic and nearly half the city burning down.
They’ve just gave us the one-minute signal in the green room.
Story time again. Probably the best place to start is Jim Davenport, seeing as he was in the middle of everything.
Yeah, we’ll start there.
And I guess we should start with the one question everyone’s asking these days. Not just the TV people, but folks everywhere. They all ask the exact same thing . . . I’ll shut up now and let the narrator take over.
So what’s up with Florida?
Talk about a swing in reputation. Forty years ago the Sunshine State was an unthreatening View-Master reel of orange groves, alligator wrestlers, tail-walking dolphins and shuffleboard.
Near the turn of the millennium, Florida had become either romantically lawless or dangerously stupid, and often both: Casablanca without common sense, Dodge City with more weapons, the state that gave you the Miami Relatives on the evening news every night for nine straight months and changed the presidential election with a handful of confetti. Consider that two of the most famous Floridians in recent years have been Janet Reno and the Anti-Reno, Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Is there no middle genetic ground?
And yet they keep coming to Florida. People who maintain such records report that every single day, a thousand new residents move into the state. The reasons are varied. Retirement, beaches, affordable housing, growing job base, tax relief, witness protection, fugitive warrants, forfeiture laws that shelter your house if you’re a Heisman trophy winner who loses a civil suit in the stabbing death of your wife, and year-round golf.
On a typical spring morning, five of those thousand new people piled into a cobalt-blue Dodge Aerostar in Logansport, Indiana. The Davenports – Jim, Martha and their three children. They watched the moving van pull out of their driveway and followed it south.
A merging driver on the interstate ramp gave Jim the bird. He would have given him two birds, but he was on the phone. Jim grinned and waved and let the man pass.
Jim Davenport was like many of the other thousand people heading to Florida this day, except for one crucial difference. Of all of them, Jim was hands-down the most non-confrontational.
Jim avoided all disagreement and didn’t have the heart to say no. He loved his family and fellow man, never raised his voice or fists, and was rewarded with a lifelong, routine digestion of small doses of humiliation. The belligerent, boorish and bombastic latched onto him like strangler figs.
He was utterly content.
Then Jim moved his family to Florida, and before summer was over a most unnatural thing happened. Jim went and killed a few people.
None of this was anywhere near the horizon as the Davenports began the second day of their southern interstate migration.
The road tar at the bottom of Georgia began to soften and smell in the afternoon sun. It was a Saturday, the traffic on I-75 thick and anxious. Hondas, Mercurys, Subarus, Chevy Blazers. A blue Aerostar with Indiana tags passed the exit for the town of Tifton, “Sod Capital of the USA,” and a billboard: “Jesus is Lord . . . at Buddy’s Catfish Emporium.”
A sign marking the Florida state line stood in the distance, along with the sudden appearance of palm trees growing in a precise grid. The official state welcome center rose like a mirage through heat waves off the highway. Cars accelerated for the oasis with the runaway anticipation of traffic approaching a Kuwaiti checkpoint on the border with Iraq.
They pulled into the hospitality center’s angled parking slots; doors opened and children jumped out and ran around the grass in the aimless, energetic circles for which they are known. Parents stretched and rounded up staggering amounts of trash and headed for garbage bins. A large Wisconsin family in tank tops sat at a picnic table eating boloney sandwiches and generic cheese doodles so they could afford a thousand-dollar day at Disney. A crack team of state workers arrived at the curb in an unmarked van and began pressure washing some kind of human fluid off the sidewalk. A stray ribbon of police tape blew across the pavement.
The Aerostar parked near the vending machines, in front of the “No Nighttime Security” sign.
“Who needs to go to the bathroom?” asked Jim.
Eight-year-old Melvin put down his mutant action figures and raised a hand.
Sitting next to him with folded arms and dour outlook was Debbie Davenport, a month shy of sweet sixteen, totally disgusted to be in a minivan. She was also disgusted with the name Debbie. Prior to the trip she had informed her parents that from now on she would only go by “Drusilla.”
“Debbie, you need to use the restroom?”
Martha got out a bottle for one-year-old Nicole, cooing in her safety seat, and Jim and little Melvin headed for the building. Outside the restrooms, a restless crowd gathered in front of an eight-foot laminated map of Florida, unable to accept that they were still hundreds of miles from the nearest theme park. They would become even more bitter when they pulled away from the welcome center, and the artificial grove of palms gave way to hours of scrubland and billboards for topless doughnut shops.
Jim bought newspapers and coffee. Martha took over the driving and pulled back on I-75. Jim unfolded one of the papers and read aloud. “Authorities have discovered a tourist from Finland who lost his luggage, passport, all his money and ID and was stranded for eight weeks at Miami International Airport.”
“Eight weeks?” said Martha. “How did he take baths?”
“Wet paper towels in the restrooms.”
“Where did he sleep?”
“Chairs at different gates each night.”
“What did he eat?”
“Bagels from the American Airlines Admiral’s Club.”
“How did he get in the Admiral’s Club if he didn’t have ID?”
“If he went to all that trouble, he probably could have gotten some kind of help from the airline. I can’t believe nobody noticed him.” “I think that’s the point of the story.”
“Kicked him out. He was last seen living at Fort Lauderdale International.”
The Aerostar passed a group of police officers on the side of the highway, slowly walking eight abreast looking for something in the weeds. Jim turned the page. “They’ve cleared the comedian Gallagher in the Tamiami Strangler case.”
“Is that a real newspaper?”
Jim turned back to the front page and pointed at the top. Tampa Tribune.
Martha rolled her eyes.
“Says they released an artist’s sketch. Bald with mustache and long hair on the sides. Police got hundreds of calls that it looked like Gallagher. But they checked his tour schedule -- he was out of state the nights of the murders.”
“They actually checked him out?”
“They also checked out Gallagher’s brother.”
Martha looked at Jim, then back at the road.
“After clearing Gallagher, they got a tip that he has a brother who looks just like him and smashes watermelons on a circuit of low-grade comedy clubs under the name Gallagher II. But he was out of town as well.”
“I hope I don’t regret this move,” said Martha.
Jim put his hand on hers. “You’re going to love Tampa.”
Jim Davenport had never planned on moving to Tampa, or even Florida for that matter. Everything he knew about the state came from the “Best Places to Live in America” magazine that now sat on the Aerostar’s dashboard. Right there on page seventeen, across from the feature on the joy of Vermont’s covered bridges, was the now famous annual ranking of the finest cities in the U.S. of A. to raise a family. And coming in at number three with a bullet – just below Seattle and San Francisco – was the shocker on the list. Rocketing up from last year’s 497th position: Tampa, Florida. When the magazine hit the stands, champagne corks flew in the Chamber of Commerce. The mayor called a press conference, and the city quickly threw together a band and fireworks show at the riverfront park; the news was so big it even caused some people to get laid.
Nobody knew it was all a mistake. The magazine had recently been acquired by a German media conglomerate, which purchased the latest spelling and grammar-check software and dismissed its editors and writers, replacing them with distracted high school students in Walkman headsets. The tabular charts on the new software had baffled a student with green hair, who inadvertently moved all of Tampa’s crime statistics a decimal point to the left.
Jim and Martha Davenport were a perfect match. She had long, flowing red hair and the patience of a firecracker. He had selective hearing.
Martha was forty-two, a year older than Jim, five-six with large hips but the perfect weight. Her lips were full, and she unconsciously favored shades of lipstick that matched her hair and freckles. Jim was five-ten with a curious physique. His frame was narrow, except for the shoulders, which were spread and bony, and he required big suits that hung all over him like a Talking Heads video.
Martha drove past the Ocala exit and checked on the kids in the rearview. Debbie was working on her sulk. Melvin wore thick glasses and read a science book, how to make a compass with a glass of water and a sewing needle. Nicole leaned forward in her safety seat, discovering her toes.
Martha set cruise control on seventy in the far right lane. The began to enter the gravitational field of Tampa Bay. An electric-lime bullet bike shot past on the left. Another ninja bike flew by on the right, in the breakdown lane, followed by a speeding red convertible full of shirtless, tattooed rocket scientists.
Martha watched them accelerate and disappear. “They endangered our family! If I had a gun–”
“That’s why you don’t have a gun.”
“Can we get a Suburban?”
“You know how much they cost.”
“They have more armor to protect the kids. Look how the people drive here.”
An Eagle Talon raced by on the right, cutting across the minivan with inches to spare. Martha hit the brakes.
“What kind of a place are we moving to?”
Jim grabbed the magazine off the dash. “Great weather, sandy beaches, beautiful state parks, historic Latin quarter, barely perceptible crime rate . . .”
They reached the city an hour before sunset. The moving van wasn’t due until morning, so they had to put up. Martha drove slowly, hunched over the wheel, scanning roadside motel signs. Econo, Budget, Value, Thrift-Rite, El Rancho.
They rolled through an intersection, the gas stations on all four corners boarded up with squatters in lawn chairs selling velvet paintings, country music lawn statuary, counterfeit Beanie Babies and slightly fresh seafood. Outside a pawn shop, a homeless man and a woman in a leopard miniskirt wrestled over a VCR.
“Doesn’t look safe.”
Jim pointed. “There’s a Motel 9.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a big chain,” he said. “They’re not going to let anything happen to us.”
The Davenports checked in and unpacked. A half hour later, Jim and Martha strolled onto their second-floor motel balcony.
“See? It’s beautiful!” said Jim, and they held hands and watched the sun set behind the Starvin’ Marvin.
Shortly after midnight, a deep boom awakened the Davenports.
“What was that?” asked Martha, bolting up in bed.
“Thunder?” said Jim.
Martha walked to the window and peeked out the curtains. “There aren’t any clouds.”
Ten minutes after midnight at The Breakers Hotel. Not the one in Palm Beach. The one in Tampa next door to Motel 9 with three cars in the lot and a flickering neon sign advertising free local calls and in-room porn.
Room 112. Mr. Rogers on TV.
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighbor–”
A twelve-gauge blew out the picture tube of the twenty-inch Sony.
A tall blonde ran out of the bathroom with white powder across her face. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. It just went off,” said the man holding a sawed-off shotgun in one hand and a Schlitz in the other.
“It doesn’t just go off!” yelled the blonde.
“This one did.”
Dogs started barking.
“Gimme that,” she said, reaching for the gun.
She jerked it out of his hands, and it went off again, blowing out the ceiling lamp. They ducked as glass fell.
More dogs barked.
“Okay, now that time it was your fault,” said the man.
“Don’t be blaming me! You’re the one who can’t do a simple thing like guard this asshole.” She pointed at the bed and the drunk businessman who had been abducted outside a titty bar and driven around for three hours, forced to make repeated ATM withdrawals, then ride in the trunk during the interspersed drug buys.
But the businessman was too tanked to be afraid. In fact, he never stopped talking, and the kidnappers began to regret their hostage selection.
“I can fix you up with a nice, clean, low-mileage Camaro,” said the hostage. “No credit? No problemo!”
“Shut up!” screamed the woman.
The male kidnapper walked over and looked closely at the man’s face. “Hey! I know him! He’s the guy on TV!”
The hostage smiled. He was “Honest Al,” the lying sales manager at Tampa Bay Motors. Twenty times a day he could be seen on local TV, banging the hood of an odometer-tampered Hyundai. “No credit? No problemo!”
Al became cranky. “Can I go now? I gotta be back at the lot in a few hours.”
“Shut up!” screamed the woman.
“I’ll give you some more money,” said Al. “I have to be there by nine. Got some people coming back to look at a flood-damaged Cadillac. Except they don’t know it’s flood-damaged. A couple of stupid Puerto Ricans.”
“Hey!” snapped the male kidnapper. “That’s not very nice.”
“Screw nice,” said Al.
“Shut up!” screamed the woman.
“You guys are losers!” said Al. “I’m leaving!”
Al got up from the bed, but the woman took two quick running steps, planted her feet and slammed Al in the face with the butt of the shotgun, sending him back on the mattress with a spurting nosebleed.
“You don’t have to be mean to him,” said her partner.
“We’re robbing him, you stupid fuck!”
“He’s just annoying. He hasn’t given us any real trouble.” The man tapped a bag of cocaine over the dresser. The coke had gotten moist and wasn’t coming out of the baggie well, and he tapped harder and the whole thing fell out in a big chunk and disintegrated in the carpet.
“That was all we had!” yelled the woman. She got down on her hands and knees and snorted the rug.
“You getting any?”
She raised her head. “A little.”
He joined her.
“You’re such an oaf, Coleman.”
“You used my name.”
“Yeah, it’s your name. Coleman. So what?”
“He heard you.”
“So now we have to kill him.”
“We’re not killing shit,” she said.
“I didn’t hear a thing,” said Al.
The woman stood up and slapped Al.
“Do you have to do that?” said Coleman.
“You’re the one who wants to kill him.”
“He can testify against me.”
“Like I care.”
“All right, let’s see how you like it, Sharon.”
“Sharon, Sharon, Sharon . . .”
“Don’t push me!”
Coleman climbed on one of the beds and jumped up and down. “. . . Sharon, Sharon, Sharon. . . .”
The motel room door flew open. Standing against the dark parking lot: a tall, lanky man in a tropical shirt. “What the fuck was all that shooting?”
Sharon and Coleman pointed at each other.
The man threw up his arms.
Coleman jumped down off the bed and ran up to him. “Serge! She used my name in front of the hostage!”
“Oh, I just used your name, didn’t I?”
Serge looked at Sharon, nose back in the rug.
“Can I ever leave you two unsupervised? And look at the coke all over the place! Don’t you know we’re in the middle of The War on Drugs?”
“The War on Drugs?” said Coleman. “I think I marched against that once.”
“Why don’t you get high on life instead?”
“And be like you?” said Sharon. “No thanks! Wandering around the parking lot like a lunatic . . .”
“I told you! The space shuttle was visible on the south-southwest horizon at seventeen degrees north for four minutes and twenty-three seconds! I can’t believe you didn’t want to see it!”
“Can I go now?” asked Al. “If you take me by an ATM, I can give you guys and the hooker some more money.”
“Hooker?” said Sharon. “Hooker!”
“Mister,” said Serge. “For your information, that’s a coke slut.”
“Hooker!” Sharon screamed. She picked up the shotgun and bashed him in the forehead again with the butt. When she did, the gun discharged, blowing out the mirror over the sink.
“I give up,” said Serge. “Let’s save ammo and call the police ourselves.”
Dogs started barking again. This time there were sirens, too.
Serge sighed and went over to Al.
“Is he hurt?” asked Sharon.
“He’s dead,” said Serge.
“Must have been the recoil from the blast. Broke his neck.”
“But I only meant to hurt him.”
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
The dogs were getting quieter but the sirens louder.
Serge canted his head toward the window. “That’s the two-minute warning. You know the drill.”
The three grabbed different parts of Al by his clothing, hoisted him to hip level and shuffled out the door. They threw him in the trunk and sped away without closing the room. Serge gunned the ’67 Barracuda and raced without headlights down a service alley behind Motel 9, just as two squad cars pulled into The Breakers.
Serge avoided the expressway and zigzaged across town on darkened industrial roads through the hobo-land of the underpasses.
“I hope you two are happy,” said Serge. “Now I’m gonna miss the Marlins’ highlights on ESPN. I think they’re going all the way this year.”
“No chance,” said Coleman. “They’ll never get past Turner’s Braves.”
“Are we going by any place we can get coke?” asked Sharon.
Serge drove to the Port of Tampa and pulled into a vacant 24-hour al fresco laudromat where all the coin slots had been pried with screwdrivers. They heaved the body out of the trunk.
Serge dragged Al by the ankles across the concrete floor.
“What are you planning?” asked Sharon.
“He was drunk, right?” said Serge.
Serge pulled the body up to the vending machines. “So when they do the autopsy, he’ll have a high blood-alcohol content, right?”
They nodded again.
Serge laid Al on his back and spread his arms wide in front of a soft drink machine. He stepped back, doing rough trigonometry in his head. He leaned down again and slid Al a few inches closer to the machine . . .