An excerpt of the Novel, The Cha-cha babes of Pelican Way
By Frances Metzman
Chapter 1: CELIA
The piercing sound of the phone startled Celia Ewing awake. With a feeling of dread, she fumbled for her cell on the night table.
“Celia.” A female voice squeaked like a trapped mouse.
“Marcy? What’s going on?” Celia propped herself up on an elbow and checked the clock on her nightstand. It was nearly 3:00 a.m.
“Um, big problem here. I need help.” Marcy’s voice sounded squished.
Celia heard a wheezing intake of breath, and a guttural outtake. “Marcy, honey, should I call 911?”
“No, no. Please. Just get over here. Just … but …” Then a hissing sound. “Not home.”
Celia rubbed her half-closed eyes, then blinked them wide open. “Where are you?”
“Get Deb. Come to Melvin’s office. Door lock … broken … something blocking.” Marcy started her sentences like a fully inflated balloon, slowly diminishing till the air rushed out in a big whoosh. “Both … push door. Can’t get up.”
“Should I get help? A security guard? I don’t think …”
“No help, damn it! No outsiders. Don’t think! Get here pronto.”
Celia heard a loud grunt before Marcy hung up.
What in the world had Marcy gotten herself into, Celia wondered. This wasn’t her beloved, vivacious friend’s first call for help, but Marcy had never sounded this dire. Celia speed-dialed their friend Deb, jumped out of bed, and switched on the light above her queen-sized bed. No answer from Deb, who suffered from full-blown rheumatoid arthritis and took sleeping pills every night. Deb and Marcy were the only good friends she’d made in Boca Pelicano Palms, Florida, the fifty-five-and-over retirement community where she’d moved two years ago. The longest street was Pelican Way, which they all lived on.
Struggling to organize her thoughts, Celia got out of bed and put on jeans and an oversized T-shirt. If the urgency in Marcy’s voice hadn’t terrified her, she would have laughed. Some of Marcy’s past antics had caused eyes to roll among a small cluster of gossipy neighbors who had nothing better to do with their time than judge what people wore or said. She first met Marcy Worthmire and Deb Castor at a cha-cha dance lesson. They’d connected from the get-go, and what Celia loved most was their honesty and lack of pretense. Although their three personalities ran the spectrum from conventional to ornery to sexpot, her new friends had her back and she theirs. When her husband, Gabe, had died three years ago, she had felt grief but also a rush of freedom that she’d rarely ever experienced. The village of Boca Pelicano Palms sat in the middle of the town of Boca Pelicano in Florida. The Sunshine State seemed to offer Celia a new life, but she soon realized she didn’t fit in. But three months after arriving, she met Marcy and Deb. They became her village, her tribe, her family. She’d do anything for them, especially since they had saved her life. She didn’t want to think about that near catastrophe now.
She left her apartment and started power walking along the outdoor block-long corridor. Once she reached the stairs, she’d still have to walk several minutes across the complex to Melvin’s office at the clubhouse.
“My new friends are zany but are straight shooters and caring. I love them,” Celia had explained to her daughter, Allison, during one of their many awkward calls.
“Zany? Does that mean loony tunes?” Allison didn’t call again for two weeks.
At that first cha-cha lesson, Deb, the oldest of the three at seventy-one, wore an ill-fitting dress with an uneven hemline and splashed with magenta flowers over her skeletal body. Her rheumatoid arthritis had started in her forties and progressed over the years. Now it affected every joint and muscle in her body, except for her acerbic tongue. Her personality vacillated from cheeky to a bit hostile, and she seemed to have no filters, spouting just what was on her mind. In restaurants she absconded with sugar packets, ketchup bottles, and bread. Her attempts at knitting with gnarled fingers turned out lumpy, mish-mashed, lopsided scarves in colors that Marcy called vomit green and oily yellow. Still, the three of them always wore the scarves on cool nights. At those times, a smiling Deb never uttered a nasty word.
Celia’s heart kicked up a notch faster as the panic in Marcy’s voice echoed in her mind. She pressed Deb’s number on her cell once again.
“Hulloo,” Deb said in a sleepy voice.
“It’s me. Marcy needs help. We can’t call 911. Meet me at Melvin’s office.”
“Oh shit. She’s at it again?”
“She sounds awful.”
“On my way.”
Tall, curvaceous Marcy—flamboyant and unapologetic—decked herself out in blinding, neon-colored skimpy skirts and low-cut chartreuse or orange blouses. At sixty-five, the same age as Celia, and in vibrant health, she sought out unattached men—on the premises or electronically—with a vengeance. But both women, despite their different personalities, often joined Celia on jaunts to art galleries, theaters, or the orchestra.
As Celia crossed over the bridge that connected her building to the walkway leading to the clubhouse, she listened for the dreaded sirens that often fragmented the night air. Ambulances zipped in and out of retirement complexes as frequently as ice cream trucks drove around playgrounds. But only palm fronds rustled overhead, lit by a full moon silvering the surface of the reflecting pool, sprouting a fountain of water at the center.
Celia recalled Marcy’s last predicament. A few months ago, she had been caught, stark naked, with the gardener after a tryst in an isolated area near a brook along the golf course. An alligator had crawled out of the water, sending a naked Marcy and gardener into the clubhouse. Before that she got caught on the roof with the roofer. One more violation and the Board of Directors promised to evict her. Celia often wondered if Marcy got into trouble as a way to thumb her nose at the few mean spirited-people who tortured her with snippy remarks.
Celia entered the clubhouse that houses the community’s offices and where they served the community meals, brought in entertainment, and hosted card clubs, movies, and speakers on health issues. The kitchen and nurses’ station were empty. When she reached Melvin’s office, she saw Deb hobbling along the corridor, wearing a frayed sweater over her nightgown, her backless slippers flopping and her face grimacing with effort. Celia pushed against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. “Marcy!” she called.
“Keep it down,” Marcy’s hoarse voice came from inside. “Push hard.”
Celia looked at Deb. “Let’s do it.”
“Are you kidding?”
It seemed impossible to force the door open but Celia would never desert her dear friend. “Push as hard as you can.”
Deb raised a tired, white eyebrow that blended with the pale skin of her creased forehead. She placed two palms against the door.
Celia braced her shoulder and thrust against the door. It moved a couple of inches. Then she used her foot and pressed with all her might as Deb flattened her back on the door and shoved. “On the count of three, give it all you have. One, two …”
The door opened enough for them to squeeze through. From the corner of her eye Celia saw that an overstuffed, worn-out chair had blocked the door. The air conditioning was turned down for the night, and the hot humid air in the small office smelled of Melvin’s stale cherry pipe tobacco, the scent more like overripe, decaying fruit.
Befuddled, Celia saw Marcy prone on the desktop buried up to her neck under a huge white mound.
“Thank God you’re here,” Marcy rasped and raised her head an inch off the desk.
“Is that Melvin’s bare butt? You guys look like a porno cartoon in a retirement magazine,” Deb croaked.
Celia blinked hard. Marcy’s body was obliterated by Melvin’s overweight, blubbery frame. No surprise that they were stark naked.
Marcy’s arms flailed. In one hand she held a cell phone. Melvin’s unmoving body drooped over the edge of the desktop, his legs dangling. “I managed to reach my handbag on the chair to get my cell, thankfully.” She grunted. “My Melvy collapsed on top of me during … oh, you know why. I can’t move.” Her breath came in sluggish pulls. “We’ve got to help him.”
“Do you think he’s okay?” Celia didn’t go any closer. “This is terrible.”
“Poor Melvin fainted. Get him off … move him, so I can breathe,” Marcy barked.
“How bad is he? Sorry I made a joke. Didn’t know …” Deb’s face morphed into alarm.
While Marcy pushed Melvin’s shoulders, Celia tugged his calves, trying not to look at his nakedness. She avoided touching his wide, flat butt. The effort sent the lower half of his body hanging further over the desk. Marcy’s arms and legs freed up, but her body remained imprisoned.
“I’m so sorry, Melvy, honey,” she crooned, tears streaking her cheeks. “You’ll be okay.”
“Stop,” Celia said. Melvin’s feet hung about a foot off the ground, and his head rested on Marcy’s abdomen. ”If we force him off he’ll crash on the floor and maybe bash his head or something. They say never move an unconscious person.” Celia had never been fond of the man, and tried to erase the vivid images of his nude body. “How are you now, sweetie?”
Marcy managed to choke out, “I can … breathe a little better. Melvy, honey we’ll get you to the doctor ASA.P, and you’ll be eating my brisket before you know it.”
Deb clucked her tongue. “It’s bad,” she mumbled. “He’s dead. Maybe a heart attack?”
Celia felt her stomach tighten hearing her thoughts voiced aloud.
“Melvin had diabetes but no heart problems,” Marcy said, taking a deep breath in.
Celia knew Deb was right but didn’t want to give up hope. “Deb, call 911.”
Celia noticed a small refrigerator in the corner. Something sugary for a diabetic in shock would help. She stepped over books, manila envelopes, metal file holders, paper clips, and a smattering of pens on the floor and pictured Melvin and Marcy sweeping everything off the desk in a fit of passion. Inside the refrigerator she saw a jar of honey and some orange juice.
“Maybe orange juice to get his sugar level up?” She held up the carton, forcing her voice to sound calm. Celia found a paper cup and poured juice into it.
“There’s no point,” Deb said. “I checked his breathing and pulse. Nothing.”
Celia watched for the slightest movement. Nothing. “Where are the paramedics?”
Deb shrugged and her white eyebrows met over the bridge of her nose. “This is Florida. They’re busy all night long.”
Celia rubbed Melvin’s cold, taut cheek with her hand. Nothing. “Oh God.” She tried to find a pulse because Deb’s fingers were often numb. But she found nothing.
Marcy gulped air. “Help him, please.”
“He’s gone,” Deb whispered to Celia. “Marcy’s in big trouble.”
Celia squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and didn’t disagree. She surveyed the scene. A frayed gray blanket cushioned Marcy’s back, her eyes wide with fear as she kneaded Melvin’s neck. “You feel so cold, Melvy, wake up.” She pressed her fist to her mouth and gagged. “I might be sick.”
Deb grabbed a wastebasket, removed Marcy’s handbag, and replaced it with the can.
“Did this guy of yours take Viagra?” Deb squeaked.
“Not with me.” Marcy wheezed. “Had a heart like a healthy ape.”
“Deb, call 911 again.” Celia saw a sheepish look on Deb’s face. “Didn’t you call?” Celia had both hands on Melvin’s cold, waxy back to keep him steady. “God, please don’t fall.”
Deb grabbed her shoulder. “He’s dead, Celia. We did all we could. Nothing left to do.”
“Call anyway.” Melvin slipped an inch and now teetered on the edge of the desk. Celia slapped both hands on his back, stopping the downward slide, and shuddered at the cold plastic feel of his skin.
Deb turned to Marcy and made a sarcastic face. “For God’s sake, Marcy, why Melvin? You know Edith wants him back. She’s got clout around here, and you’ve made her your sworn enemy.”
“He begged her for a divorce before I arrived on the scene,” Marcy snapped, a sob rising in her voice.
Deb looked away. “Okay, okay, but his office? Another public place.”
“Stop squabbling and call an ambulance,” Celia demanded, stamping her foot.
Deb walked to the other side of the room, her cell to her ear.
Marcy shook her hand. “I can’t feel half my body.”
“I’m thinking how to get him off without hurting either of you.” Celia snuck a peek at Melvin’s sunken, filmy fixed eyes.
“We can save him, right, Celia?” Marcy coughed, and took shallow breaths. She started pounding his back. “Wake up, you jerk, breathe.”
“Stop, before he hits the ground.” She grabbed Marcy’s wrists, picturing his cracked skull bleeding on the washed-out blue tile floor—dead or not the vision made her shake.
“Listen, both of you,” Deb took a deep breath. “I’ve seen lots of dead people. I’m telling you he’s gone.” She tented her hands under her chin, blinking hard. A tiny, earnest tear appeared in the corner of her eye.
“He can’t be,” Marcy said, flushing deep red and breaking into sobs. Celia braced herself against the desk to stop her trembling. Despite her dislike of the man, she never would have wished him ill.
Marcy, still sobbing, said, “I don’t care how the medics find me. I love my Melvy.”
Deb shook a gnarled finger at Marcy. “You know inappropriate behavior in public spaces is reason for eviction. That includes sex. You don’t believe in a bedroom?” Deb scrunched her face. “When you and Melvin had sex in the clubhouse bathroom during the bridge tournament they heard you moaning in three counties. Now Edith is next in line to take over as president of the Board and you’re in deep shit.”
The bluish color on his face was spreading to Melvin’s neck, and Celia forced herself to look away. “Let the authorities handle it.”
Marcy’s shoulders jerked. “Celia’s right,” she whispered. “I’ll have to take the flack.”
Deb stared at Melvin’s body. “Let’s be practical.”
“We wait till the ambulance gets here.” Celia noticed Deb staring at the phone. “Damn it, you didn’t call. Give me that phone.”
Deb looked sheepish and kept the phone out of Celia’s reach. “Can’t we get her out and leave Melvin here? Then we’ll call 911 anonymously and block our number.”
“We have to call them now,” Celia said with determination. “Call them.”
“I mean, I’d have called 911 if he could be revived, of course! They’ll want her off the premises right away. Where will she go? She’s broke.”
“God knows I don’t want that,” Celia said. “Even if we pry her out from under him they’ll see a naked man on his desk who looks like he died in the throes of having sex.”
Deb snorted. “Finding him here will open a beehive. Edith is still technically his wife and can demand an autopsy. If anything is out of whack, she’ll jump all over Marcy. Bigger trouble.”
“Oh Lord.” Marcy fisted her hands. “I’m a goner.”
Celia stomach turned cartwheels as she agonized about Marcy’s predicament.
Deb looked up, her eyes brightening. “If we move him to his apartment it will look like he died of natural causes. He was about to go on an insulin pump for diabetes and oxygen for emphysema.” Deb looked at Celia with pleading hound dog eyes. “Look, he didn’t take care of himself.” Deb snickered and said, almost to herself, “The pecker head saved Global HMO a ton of money for medical costs.”
“That’s a sick joke. Life isn’t judged by cost,” Celia said, suddenly cold and shivering.
“Sorry.” Deb waved her hand as though erasing what she said. “Just trying to lighten things a bit.”
“Moving a body is criminal.” Celia said, glancing Melvin’s drooping body. The position looked painful. “We’ll never get away with it.”
Marcy gulped. “You’re right but …”
Celia kneaded her hands as she noted how much bluer Melvin’s skin looked now.
“So?” Deb asked.
“Let me think.” Celia’s breathed in slowly just the way Marcy had taught her to do as her mind spun.
About the Novel: In her novel, THE CHA-CHA BABES OF PELICAN WAY, Frances Metzman concentrates on women's friendships, mature women learning how to start new lives and find romance after living previously dysfunctional lives. The protagonist has to do much soul searching while attempting to solve a murder mystery. We also find millennials vs. Baby Boomers. Do they live parallel lives? The Cha-Cha Babes of Pelican Way will be in bookstores June 21, 2018.
About the Author: Frances "Fran" Metzman is Fiction Editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal.