Champs cracked open a lukewarm can of beer and stared at the golden scattering urn that contained his dead wife. It was his first urn—the other dead people he knew had been buried—and he didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do with it. With her. With Pat. When he’d brought the urn back from the mortuary a month ago, he’d placed it in the center of their laminate dining table like a vase of flowers.
It was the only focal point in the assisted-living cottage he’d shared with Pat for the last two years. Of her life. She hadn’t had time to make her decorative mark in their new home. That was fine with Champs. As far as he was concerned, this was no home. It was a final resting place, where an urn was the perfect ornament.
“Things sure didn’t work out like we’d planned. Did they, Pat?” Champs asked the urn.
It was an understatement. He wished they’d never laid eyes on Egret’s Pond. He’d decided moving there was the instigating factor in Pat’s death. Egret’s Pond should have come with a warning label: Enter at Your Own Risk or Dangerous Curve Ahead. Even without the signs, he’d known right away that something didn’t smell right about the place. If only he’d obeyed his instincts from the start.
Champs remembered the brochure he’d picked up when he and Pat had arrived for a tour. He could still feel its glossy pages in his hands. Egret’s Pond claimed to be the retirement community with a “freestyle lifestyle.” The slogan was written in swirly red letters next to a photo of horny-looking fortysomethings playing strip poker at a fancy card table. At least that was what Champs had seen. He’d turned the page for more.
Page two extolled the benefits of the SPARK program next to a snapshot of a hot nurse bending over a silver-haired man in tight swim trunks. That man had a smile on his face like the cat who’d got the cream and then some. Champs had allowed himself to fantasize about medical advances in erectile stimulation for the over-sixty-fives. He was ready to sign on the dotted line. But his excitement had been short-lived. The SPARK program comprised three “freestyle” activities: yoga, a weekly alcohol-free cards night, and a recycling club. He hadn’t been able to think of a worse combination. Unless they’d included golf. Champs hated golf.
But before he could sneak out of the lobby, the facilities director had approached them. Dressed in a white pantsuit, carrying a clipboard, her brown hair pinned back from her face in swoops, she’d resembled Nurse Ratched.
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Noland,” she’d said in an overly cheerful voice like a kindergarten teacher on the first day of school. “Welcome to Egret’s Pond! We hope today will turn out to be the first day of the rest of your life!”
“Jesus Christ, Pat. Why didn’t we run for the hills?” Champs asked the urn.
He took off his bifocals and rubbed his sunken blue eyes. In the mirror across the room, he examined his reflection: a slightly hunched-over, balding man with wispy strands of gray-blond hair and patchy stubble. He used to be a handsome man—if he did say so himself—with a bronzed, weathered look and taut muscles from days of year-round fishing exposed to the elements. Today, he saw a withered man with pale skin and flaccid forearms. The last two years had taken their toll.
“Say cheese,” he said to the man in the mirror. But the corners of his mouth refused to budge.
When he’d gone to collect the urn, they’d given him a booklet, “What to Expect When You’re Grieving.” Earlier in the week, exhausted but unable to sleep, Champs had opened the booklet to the section called “Are You Depressed?” He liked quizzes, so he’d completed the diagnostic questionnaire. His final score landed him in the “moderately depressed” category. There were only three categories: depressed, moderately depressed, and clinically depressed. The treatment for all three was a combination of counseling services, support groups, and a pick-and-mix list of prescription meds. Suspicious, Champs had examined the fine print on the back cover and discovered the booklet was produced by a major pharmaceuticals company. “Depression, my ass,” he’d mumbled before grinding the whole booklet down the garbage disposal.
He had his own methods of coping: drinking cheap beer, talking out loud to his dead wife, and drifting in and out of memories. As much as possible, he kept his eyes trained on the golden urn. Any moment now, he expected, Pat would pop up like a jack-in-the-box or a genie in a bottle and tell him what the hell he was supposed to do with her. What the hell he was supposed to do with the coagulated feeling in his chest, as if his organs were packed tight in aspic. Any moment now.
“Tell me what to do, Pat. I sit here day after day and you say nothing. I’ve got a life sentence on death row in front of me. I need some answers,” he demanded, and downed the rest of his beer.
Champs was fed up with the urn’s stubborn silence and angry with his wife for conning him into moving to deadly Egret’s Pond in the first place. Though, generally speaking, she’d never been much of a con artist, he had to admit. As they’d approached the ripe old age of seventy, Pat had convinced him to put their family home on the market and find a suitable retirement facility. She’d called it “downsizing” and said they’d have more freedom to explore new interests, meet exciting people, and enjoy their final act together.
“There’s no sense us rattling around in this big house now,” Pat had said. “It’s more than we need and too much work for you. Besides, it will be fun to reinvent ourselves.”
The expressions “downsizing,” “final act,” and “reinvent ourselves” had alarmed Champs. But at the time, he couldn’t think of any reasonable objections. He was used to doing whatever Pat said was best. She always knew how to take care of things. Take care of him. To make the idea palatable, he’d decided what Pat really meant was he’d have more time for fishing and crabbing on the Sassafras River.
The Sassafras River, a tidal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, stretched twenty-two miles long on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Champs owned a seasonal cabin there. It wasn’t much more than a shack, but it had been in the family for four generations. He was devoted to it. Champs was a fisherman before all else—a Sassafras fisherman. He’d looked forward to spending as much time as possible on the water, where he belonged.
Satisfied he wouldn’t need to reinvent himself or meet exciting people, Champs had whittled down fifty years of family belongings, consolidated finances, updated wills, and sold their three-thousand-square-foot house in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. He and Pat had moved into a small independent-living cottage at Egret’s Pond. “Here we are,” he’d said. “The first day of the rest of our lives.”
Champs had soon realized that when you stripped away the glossy brochures, clever euphemisms, and overly cheerful voices, an adult living facility boiled down to two words: “game over.” You wouldn’t be passing “Go” anymore once you landed here, no matter how many doubles you rolled in the Monopoly club. In fact, you wouldn’t be doing much of anything anymore. Anything useful, that is. Champs remembered his third day at Egret’s Pond, when he’d pulled out his lawn mower to mow the grass around their cottage.
“Stop! Stop!” their new neighbor had shouted, running across the lawn dressed in a pompous golf outfit and waving a nine-iron. “You’re not allowed to do that here. It’s all done for you. The landscaping team will be here tomorrow at ten a.m. for that. Leaves us more time for golfing, eh?” He’d given Champs a friendly wink and a nudge to the shoulder.
Champs hated golfers even more than he hated golf. Golfers who wore plaid knickers with a matching beret and bow tie were the worst. Idiots, all of them.
“If I were in charge, Pat, I’d make them call it what it is: a goddamn assisted-dying facility. Makes no sense pussyfootin’ around the matter,” Champs told his dead wife, cracking open another beer and clunking it on the urn in a macabre “cheers” gesture.
No matter where you lived at Egret’s Pond, your home was called your “unit.” There was a full spectrum of units available on “the compound.” That’s what Champs had nicknamed it when Pat wouldn’t let him call it a prison. She wouldn’t let him call their unit a “cell” either, but that’s what it felt like to Champs. A cage. A trap.
It was all part of the “continuing care” services they advertised. Independent-living cottages like theirs were units at the top of the food chain. As you shriveled and shrank, you slid to the assisted-living apartments in Ruston Hall. Champs had nicknamed it “Rust in Hell.” Some fought their change in status, but very few escaped the tyranny of continuing care. From Ruston, you might go in for a cozy little number in the memory-support units on Rosemary Lane. Rosemary for remembrance, he’d guessed. As if. Or you might get a stay of execution in the rehab units after a close but not fatal encounter with the grim reaper. And eventually, if you didn’t draw a get-out-of-jail-free card, you spent the rest of your life in a hospital bed at Heron’s Nest. “The Nest” came with twenty-four/seven nursing care and a free ticket to hospice, the bottom of the food chain. That was where Pat had died. Four weeks and two days ago.
Champs remembered sinking into a lumpy corduroy recliner in the living room area of Heron’s Nest the night she’d died. The curtains had been left open, and the windows stared back at him—black, cold, and barren. A muted TV hung on the wall over a mock fireplace, the Weather Channel breaking the news of a blizzard somewhere. He’d thought it ironic that if you weren’t in the living room at the Nest, you were in one of the dying rooms. Those were the only units available there.
He’d been told by the nurse to take a break from his wife’s bedside, where she was rotting away with cancer. Pat had been officially diagnosed a mere three months after they’d arrived at the compound. “Treatment,” the doctor had said at first. “Hospice,” he’d said after a while. “Not long now,” he’d said earlier that day. Pat had taken her last breath while Champs dozed in the living room chair. He could still feel the nurse’s touch on his shoulder. Her gentle shake as he’d opened his eyes.
“Mr. Noland? Mr. Noland. She’s passed now.”
He’d walked numbly into Pat’s dying unit and placed his hand over hers. He couldn’t recall now how long he’d sat next to her, staring at a butterfly-shaped stain on her hospital blanket, unable to feel anything at all. He did remember the nurse moving his hand away before rigor mortis set in. It was daylight by then.
“And here we are,” Champs announced to the metallic jar. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
His beer can was empty but he didn’t have the energy or desire to get up for one more. Instead he drifted into another memory. This time a happier one—when he and Pat had first met.
Nineteen years old and home from college for winter break, Champs had gone skating on Blue Marsh Lake one full-moon night with a group of his buddies and plenty of cheap beer. He’d never been a good skater and alcohol did nothing to improve his skills. After three minutes on the ice, he’d stumbled and landed hard. White skates and a sparkling spray of little stars cut to a stop in front of him. A pair of yellow mittens reached down to pull him up. At the end of the mittens was a smiling, golden-haired farmer’s daughter called Pat. He’d almost slipped again, but she’d held him upright with strong arms and warmhearted confidence. Deaf to the wolf-whistling of his drunken friends and the giggles of Pat’s girlfriends, Champs didn’t let go of her until midnight. By then, she’d taught him to skate, and he’d fallen in love.
The house phone rang, interrupting his reverie.
“Should I answer that?” he asked Pat, picturing her under the full moon in her white skates, short pleated skirt, and banana-yellow mittens.
She said nothing.
Champs didn’t want to answer the phone. But he didn’t want someone to show up at his door because they couldn’t reach him over the wires. It was compound policy to place a weekly check-in call on single-occupied units. If Champs didn’t answer or return the call within twenty-four hours, Egret’s Pond dispatched a special SWAT team to the cottage.
He’d already been through that twice.
They’d arrived in golf carts with fake sirens on top. Their mission, as far as Champs could tell, was to pound on his front door and barge inside like hooligans just in case he’d fallen and couldn’t get up. He didn’t have Life Alert. Or in case he was dead. When, on both occasions, the uniformed special forces had found him alive—if inebriated—at the kitchen table, they’d looked disappointed. Champs had offered them a beer as a consolation prize, but apparently, that was against the rules.
“Hello?” Champs yelled into the phone. He wasn’t deaf or taken to shouting, but it pleased him to act his age if there was any chance it might annoy the caller. He had to get his kicks somehow.
“Champs, it’s Laura. You’re not annoying me,” said Champs’s daughter, who was all too familiar with the ploy.
His children never called him Dad or Daddy or Papa; it was a family tradition. And he was the fifth Champs in the Noland line. Or the sixth. Nobody was sure. Champs had been reluctant to rock the boat with his elders. So Pat had gone along with their children’s calling him Champs but she’d insisted on giving their firstborn son his own name, thereby ending the legacy. Pat had always known how to strike a good bargain.
“Oh. Laura. What do you want?”
“I’m fine, Champs. Thanks for asking. How are you?”
“Fine.” It was his standard answer to prevent further questions about his well-being.
“Why didn’t you answer your cell phone?”
“Huh? Cell phone? What cell phone?” Champs hated cell phones and had switched his off weeks ago. He didn’t even know where it was.
“Whatever,” said Laura. “I’m calling to remind you I’ll pick you up outside reception at eleven o’clock today.”
“Huh? What for?”
“I really don’t have time for this today. Please just shave and put on some clean clothes. I’ll pick you up outside the main building at eleven. Don’t be late.” She ended the call.
“How about you come with me, Pat?” Champs asked the urn. “You like Blue Claw, and I know you want to see the kids. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be there today. Even if you didn’t get a formal invitation.”
Laura had set the outing up two weeks ago. “It’s something for you to look forward to,” she’d told Champs as she marked it in red pen on the wall calendar.
Egret’s Pond provided every unit with a wall calendar. Each month had an inspirational quote under a photo of a sunset. The quote for March was “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Champs had scoffed when he’d seen that. He didn’t think it was either that mattered when you lived in an “expirement home,” in “Regret’s Pond.” After all, the destination was death and the journey was a long, slow slide into death. At least for him.
The lunch date at Blue Claw, his favorite restaurant, was the only thing written down in March; you really couldn’t miss it. But Champs was suspicious of calendars and refused to consult them. He could perfectly remember where to be and when, unless he didn’t want to be there. Plus, he hated the concept of marking time at this stage of his life. Especially in alarming red ink.
“I forgot it on purpose,” he admitted to Pat with a shrug.
Champs loved his adult children and he loved the biscuits at Blue Claw possibly even more. What he didn’t love was the real agenda of the luncheon. He knew Laura, along with his son Jeffrey, would push him into staying at the compound for the rest of his life. A grim prospect. At least it wasn’t three-on-one today, Champs thought. His oldest son, David, lived in California and wouldn’t be there.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said to the golden urn, and headed for the shower.