West Palm Gig by Susan Surman

Amid swaying palm trees, lush gardens, and the blue ocean, Valeska Bernhart, a faded Hollywood film star; Glick Glickman, a has-been Broadway impresario; and Jon Sullivan, an out-of-work New York actor, meet at West Palm Acres, a retirement community in West Palm Beach, Florida, and reinvent themselves for a new chance at hilarious happiness.

Chapter One

“Mister Goldberg, it’s time to take your pill,” Jon shouted through the dark green steel door. 4-G. The brass nameplate readHarry Goldberg andOscar Shapiro. Getting no response, Jon knocked on the door. Not so much a “knock knock”, but rather a light rap. Still getting no response, he banged three times with a closed fist before shouting out the next directive: “Mister Shapiro, it’s time to take your pill.” Jon waited. Pressing the bell would have been easier, but it was an absolute last resort. Something to do with the shrill sound of the buzzer startling the folks with sensitive ears; maybe faulty hearing aids. A hand knock, then the brass knocker only if necessary. No bell. He didn’t question the direction. Per his training, he did as he was told.

So far, his first day on the job at the place was going satisfactorily. Actually, he didn’t know if it was going satisfactorily or not, never having been a medical clown before. No one in management knew if it was going well or not. The launch of a new experiment to remind residents to take their medications would take time to assess. It wasn’t so much the reminder, but the take on it. Medical clown was a good description.

New York based actor Jon Sullivan was standing in the fourth floor hallway or, as the residents labeled it, ‘the penthouse,’ of Building G at West Palm Acres in West Palm Beach, one of Florida’s premier retirement communities, and he was dressed in a costume knocking on doors reminding residents to take their pills. A clown costume. Jon Sullivan. Never say never in life because this was something he would have said would never happen to him.

The décor had a dizzying effect; repelling, yet, he had to admit, strangely attractive. It was the same on all the floors. The walls were papered in floral prints of bright shades of emerald green, orange, yellow and varying shades of purple to blend in, more or less, with the varied color of the doors. The floors were covered in a thin carpet of a pattern in corresponding colors. Only in Florida. Jon learned that the wallpaper would soon be replaced by a simpler pattern of swaying palm trees on a white background. Nice. He also learned this was a rumor started and spread around for many years by a longstanding resident.

It had taken nearly four hours to get around the seven buildings on the property all with the similar design: four floors, each with an elevator, thirty apartments. About eighty percent were two bedrooms; the other twenty percent were made up of studios and one bedroom. This information he learned from the brochure at his training session. He didn’t actually go around and count.

Jon welcomed the exercise. After a short break, he started the rounds again. That way everyone was reminded to take their pills at what had been deemed the general interval between prescribed medications. No one had worked through what happened if a resident was not in his apartment when the knock came from Sullivan. There were multiple activities going on all the time at West Palm Acres, from an arts and crafts class to the musical group called Flats and Sharps to the aquatics at the indoor and outdoor pools, card games, and much more. Anyway it was the early days of the project, so no one was worried about flaws yet. The general consensus was that the kinks would get worked out in the doing. That’s why it was called ‘an experiment.’

Jon’s voice projection was good as he reminded each resident on his list about their pills. Too bad his voice projection hadn’t helped him get an acting job in nearly eight months. And before that, there was a long interval between acting jobs. The theatrical term was resting. Between jobs, actors waited for the magic call from their agents about the next job. To make ends meet, lots of actors—and that included Jon—sometimes took odd jobs. Nothing could be odder than this one. He had hated leaving all the action in New York, but he’d hung around long enough with nothing happening. And when you need work, you go where the work is, whatever it is. He figured a job out of the acting business would be less of a stigma if he was out of town, away from the mainstream of the highly competitive acting community. And winter was rolling in up north, so he wasn’t going to mind being warm for a while. The job included bed and board and a small stipend, enough to cover his rent controlled studio apartment in a pretty good neighborhood in lower Manhattan.

A quick look at his reflection in a window told him he was ageless in the clown suit, not that that was the intention. As it happened he was thirty-four, had an acting range of four or five years either way, was tall, and he was single. That part made it simpler to come and go. Two years ago, he had taken a job on a cruise ship and was part of a troupe doing their thing on the high seas nightly. His specialty was a juggling act and telling a few jokes at the same time. Not a very good sailor, he had spent his off-stage hours mostly being sick in the head. He vowed no matter how bad things got, he was never going to do a cruise ship thing again. There was that word again. Never. A word never to be used.

Under the clown costume, that was a little warm on his body, but nothing unbearable, Jon’s appearance was generic. Except for his hair. His hair was red. In bright sunlight, it looked orange. In Florida, he looked like he had a tomato on his head. Not the bright red type. The yellow-red ones that were supposed to be better for your health. He had lovely soft brown eyes and—once people got over the hair—that’s what they focused on. Growing up, he was teased in the neighborhood because no one had hair like that. His mother didn’t have red-orange hair, his father didn’t have red-orange hair, his sister had a nice head of brown hair. His mother’s, “That’s how it happens sometimes,” was explanation enough and couldn’t be questioned. Jon grew up and outgrew hating being a redhead. By college, they were calling him ‘Red’ after Red Skeleton, who was his hero. And when his career was beginning to take off, he was easily identifiable in the acting game by producers and directors when he went to auditions. “Let’s get the redhead” or “Call back the redhead for a second reading” or “Who’s the redhead’s agent?” It was his calling card. And he wasn’t going to fight it. For movies the color could always be changed. It’s what actors did all the time.

He liked being single. Marriage might have prevented his gallivanting around so freely, taking jobs where they came up. It wasn’t that he was anti-women. Hardly. He dated lots of actresses, but nothing ever developed into a serious relationship; that is, he got out before it got to that next level, much to the disappointment of his parents and probably the female party. He never stayed around long enough to find out. He wasn’t a cad or anything like that. It’s just that he believed when a thing was over, it was over. No need to conduct a post-mortem.

His parents still lived in the same house where he was born just outside Chicago. They thought their son was in New York teaching a course called, “Creativity in Communication” at a college. It was easier to let them think so. The ultra conservative Sullivans never would have understood or approved of his lifestyle. Actually, he had taught an acting class one semester, so it was more of a fib than an out and out lie. The real lie was about his name change. His birth name was Duane Sullivan, Junior, but thinking it would be easier to say, spell and remember, he had changed it to Jon when he moved to the big Apple fourteen years ago. Jon told his family there were too many Duane Sullivans in New York, especially in communication. Trusting souls, they never doubted his choice.

He had had to reveal many of these details in an interview before West Palm Acres would hire him. He had also been subjected to a drug test. He didn’t even drink wine. Never had. And never had the desire to snort anything. In these two cases, the word “never” was totally appropriate. When his urine test came out a copper color, he was suspected of something, but the lab technicians couldn’t put their finger on it. A second test proved him to be safe. Further investigation revealed that the copper color was attributed to the fact that Jon had eaten about half a pound of red beets the night before the test. Auditioning for a Broadway show or a television role was less intensive than this one at West Palm Acres, but he needed money so he didn’t complain. In a way it was kind of an acting job. He was in costume. He was playing a character. He had received a script to memorize his one line. He had been given directions. Definitely an acting role.

Signs of life behind the door to 4-G finally could be heard, and Jon Sullivan had something to focus on other than Jon Sullivan; just one of the many idiosyncrasies of an actor, appropriately titled, Me, Me, Me.

Two men stood at the now opened door looking up at the stranger. The man on the right asked with curiosity, “Who are you?” Not waiting for a reply, he said emphatically, “If you’re from the travel people, we already told them we don’t want to do the day trip on the cruise ship.”

The man on the left explained to Jon—who didn’t know who was Goldberg and who was Shapiro, “Everyone goes so they can gamble for the day. I get seasick at the indoor pool we got here, never mind an ocean voyage.”

“Another country heard from,” the other one said. “Besides, it isn’t a voyage. The ship stands still for five hours.” Looking at the person standing in front of him, he asked, “Are you the one yelling about some cockamamie pills?” And looking him up and down, added, “In a clown get-up yet or maybe your everyday attire?”

Had Jon detected a slight note of disdain? After all, a stranger telling you to take your pill could create some mistrust. With the door open, Jon was surprised to see how dark it was in the apartment.

One of the gentlemen picked up on Jon’s look and volunteered an explanation. “The sun’s so bright we can’t see the TV. So we keep the drapes closed.”

So much for the hype about the benefits of vitamin D, Jon thought. It was necessary to get down to business. Looking down at the little man on the right, Jon said in a serious tone, “It’s time to take your pill, Mister Goldberg.” Little as in height-wise, not meaning a person of lesser value.

Without hesitation, the short man said with authority, “I’m Shapiro. The ugly one is Goldberg.” The arthritic finger first pointed to, then poked his roommate in the ribs.

Ignoring the ‘ugly’ reference, the pointed finger, and finally the shove, Goldberg restored himself. “We took the pill ten minutes ago. Since we have the same prescription, we split it in half. Saves on the medical expenses,” he said with superiority. “And health-wise, we feel the same with or without the pill; with or without the whole or the half. So there it is.” Nodding towards Shapiro, he said matter-of-factly, “If he dies, he dies.”

If Jon’s eyes were closed, he would think it was actor Walter Matthau with his deliberate enunciation on certain words. Oscar Shapiro’s voice was gentler in tone; more like Eli Wallach. Jon had trouble believing the explanation about their creative pill taking. Apart from not believing them, he wasn’t sure if what they said they did was even legal or medically correct; but, as he was only supposed to deliver the one line giving them the reminder to take the pill and not monitor the actual taking of it, he said nothing.

Harry Goldberg caught sight of the elevator door opening down the hall. Without moving, he called out to no one, “Somebody hold that damn door. I want to eat.” He continued, “Whoever heard of a dining room in a basement? I eat my meals facing a brick wall.”

Oscar Shapiro quickly added, no doubt to impress the clown, “There’s a palm tree out there, too, in a beautiful garden with a stone bench. Don’t listen to him.”

“Don’t listen to him. I’m paying monthly fees for an underground garden with a brick wall,” Harry Goldberg said with great annoyance.

“We’re thinking of getting a petition up to change the name West Palm Acres to Garden of the Moon,” Oscar Shapiro said. “It has a romantic touch.”

“Romance, shmomance. It’ll never happen.” Turning his attention to the clown, Harry Goldberg said, “There was a movie where that doctor character put on a clown face to make the patients feel better. Are you a medical person?”

“Doctor. You mean, doctor,” corrected Oscar Shapiro.

“What?” asked Goldberg. “I said that.”

“Doctor. Not medical person,” Shapiro corrected impatiently. That’s what you said.”

“What’s the matter with you? That’s what I said.”

Not wanting to get in the middle of their thing, whatever their thing was, Jon jumped in. “Look guys, I’m just a kind of aide in a clown suit. I’ve been hired to go floor to floor, door to door, up and down to all the apartments in all the buildings. That way, everyone gets a nice reminder every four to five hours to take the next pill. It’s a new experiment. Management thought the clown suit would add a bit of fun for the patients. I mean residents.” He quickly made the correction, but it was too late. The grave error had already slipped from his lips. To take their minds off his stupid fluff, in a stage voice from his lower register, he proudly announced, “In real life, I’m an actor. My name is Jon Sullivan. You may have seen me in some things.” Typical of many actors, he was always citing his credentials; if not actually citing them to anyone, he would rehearse them in his mind to reinforce his abilities. He held out his hand, not to be kissed, but perhaps to be shaken as a goodwill gesture.

Ignoring the extended white gloved hand of the clown, Goldberg and Shapiro looked at one another before looking back up at the clown. Actor? They’d been injected in the arm with a life-enhancing serum just by the word. They loved actors, acting, anything to do with performers, stars, television, movies, Hollywood. All of it.

“I saw you on the box last night,” Goldberg announced, shaking his head with approval. “You’re very good.”

“No, you didn’t, moron,” Shapiro reprimanded. To Jon, he said, “Don’t listen to him, Clown Solomon.”

At first, Jon wasn’t sure he should make the distinction, but in the end, he did. “Sullivan. Jon. You don’t have to say the clown part. Just Jon Sullivan.” It didn’t matter. No one was listening.

Shapiro explained, “Listen, last night, we attended a program on reversing arteries, so my friend here couldn’t have seen you.”

“Heart disease,” Goldberg corrected. “Not reversing. It was about arteries. How can you reverse arteries? And besides, it wasn’t reversing. It was the other re word.” He thought a second before coming up with, “Reconstructing.” The attempt to snap his finger didn’t quite work. He tried again. Still no luck. He gave up.

“What in blazes are you talking about?” Shapiro snapped. Turning away from Goldberg, he addressed the clown. “We see movies now and again, but they are nothing like they used to be. We used to see every movie that was ever made. In a real movie theater. Big screen. Lots of seats. Down and up. A balcony.” His eyes shone as he recalled the time. “Maybe we’ve seen you; maybe not.”

Caught up in the reverie of the bygone movie days, Goldberg said, “Back then, they had a movie, then a live orchestra came right up out of the floor, then a second movie. Remember, Oscar? Harry James. Benny Goodman. Tommy Dorsey. That was a real show.”

“Remember?” exclaimed Shapiro. “Remember? I was there, dumbo. Twenty-five cents every Saturday. It was a lot of money back then. We weren’t rich, but we always found the money to go to the movies.”

“Every Saturday, we were there.” Goldberg eyes misted as he remembered.

“So you guys knew one another a long time ago.” Jon meant it as a question, but it came out like a statement.

“Are you kidding? Over fifty years I know this ganef,” said Shapiro with affection.

“Once I stole a button from him, so I became a ganef, a crook, according to him,” Goldberg said with equal affection. “Ganef  he thinks sounds more classy so he uses it. We worked together in the garment district on Seventh Avenue in New York,” he explained. The images raced through his brain and just for that moment in time, you could see the switch on his face, and he wasn’t here but there.

“Manhattan,” Shapiro corrected.

Ignoring him, Goldberg went on. “It was a time when clothes had really good stitching. We were tailors,” he said with great pride. He reached out and touched the front of the loose jacket Jon had on. “Excuse me, do you mind?” Jon gave the go ahead nod. Harry handled a button. He lifted up the collar and ran his finger down a seam. “Oi. Look at this, Oscar. Machine. Today, they don’t know one stitch from another. He’ll be lucky if this outfit lasts through the week. Three days tops.”

“They did that because of the heat. Had to make it lightweight. It’s just a costume,” Jon mumbled, straightening his collar and heeding their words without tugging too heavily on the fabric. He said brightly, “I bet those were the days, huh? Anyone who was anyone wore hand-tailored.”

Shapiro was thinking movies, not shirts. “Do you know the actress Sharon Stone? Some beauty.”

“What about Rosalind Russell? Ever meet her?” Goldberg piped in, adding, “Jewish. A lot of people didn’t know that.” This type of conversation made him tingle with excitement.

“They didn’t know that because she wasn’t Jewish,” Shapiro snapped.

“What are you talking about, moron? She was Jewish. Real name was Goldberg.”

“That’s your name, dummy.”

“We were distant cousins.”

“I know you fifty-three years. How come I never knew that?”

“I don’t tell you everything.”

“Why not?”

Jon was enjoying the two, but he couldn’t allow himself to be drawn into their debate because with this pill job, time was of the essence. He excused himself and headed down the hallway to the next door, surprised but not sorry that the vaudeville team was following. At their own pace, of course.

4-H. The place where the name should be was blank. He checked the list on his clipboard notes. Hank Herman’s name was there. Jon put his ear to the door. Not hearing anything, he shouted, “Mister Herman, it’s time to take your pill.” Jon waited a couple of seconds. He knocked on the lime green steel door. “Mister Herman?”

When the duo of Goldberg and Shapiro caught up to him, in unison they announced in flat tones, “He’s dead.”

“Dropped right into the soup. Only eighty-four. A kid,” said the eighty-seven year old Harry Goldberg, further explaining, “Last week in the dining room in the middle of lunch. Just like that.” Another attempt to snap his fingers didn’t exactly work.

Out of respect, Shapiro lowered his head before speaking. “We don’t know who’s moving in. It’s a nice big unit. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, make-shift kitchen. Just like ours. We don’t cook. I’m eighty-seven.”

“Eighty-nine,” Goldberg corrected. “I’m eighty seven.”

“Are you sure?” Shapiro tired to do a mental calculation, but gave up. “Oh, well, it’s only a number.”

“Until you have to get out of bed in the morning.” Goldberg never talked about it to strangers, but his hips, knees, feet, eyelids, ears, elbows, and fingers ached constantly.

It was back to the movies with Harry and Oscar continuing their observations about who was and who was not Jewish in Hollywood while Jon crossed Hank Herman’s name off his list. He would have to report this to the office so they could update his report.

“Weren’t you guys going down to the dining room?” Jon asked concerned they might be missing their meal time.

“I’m not hungry,” Shapiro said.

“They want us to eat lunch at ten-thirty in the morning,” grumbled Goldberg.

“And dinner at four-thirty in the afternoon. Who ever heard of such a thing? The verkakte early bird special,” complained Shapiro. “I used to eat a big lunch when I was young around one o’clock. Then dinner—only then they called it supper—was at seven, eight; sometimes as late as eight-thirty.”

“You mean when you could chew,” said Goldberg.

Ignoring the person he shared his living accommodations with, he said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to eat when.”

“Or when to eat what,” added Goldberg. “Mind you, the mashed yams yesterday weren’t too bad. I liked them.”

“Too dry,” said Shapiro. “Now they call them sweet potatoes, I think.”

“Same thing.”

“Sunday was the day we had chicken with yam potatoes.”

“Yam is a potato. You don’t say yam potato,” corrected Goldberg.

Oscar Shapiro was strolling down memory lane and wasn’t listening to Harry. “My mother worked full time so the kitchen was my grandmother’s department.  Roast chicken for lunch, a chicken sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise on toasted white bread for dinner while I listened to my favorite programs on the radio: Jack Benny; Fred Allen; Amos `n Andy. On Monday, my grandmother sent me to school with a thick sliced chicken sandwich on thick white bread, and Monday night we had chicken salad with chopped celery on a bed of lettuce. In those days, no one worried about allergies and arthritis and inflamed joints. Why would that matter when there was the wishbone ritual? The wishbone. The highlight. Every Sunday, my grandmother would pull it off the cooked chicken, dry it off with a paper towel, and hold it out to me. I grabbed one end in my small hand while she held the other end and we each made a wish. Then we pulled the thin bones apart. The one who got the fat end was the winner. That person’s wish would come true. I can’t remember what I wished for.”

“Probably a more varied menu,” chuckled Goldberg.

Jon wasn’t sure where this bantering was headed or if it had come to an end, so he excused himself and walked down the hall to the next door. The duo was right behind him.

4-J was a purple door and the brass plate was marked Valeska Bernhart. He was puzzled. He looked at his list. Had he missed a door?

Reading his mind, Shapiro volunteered, “The ‘I’ is eliminated at West Palm Acres. No one knows why.”

“No one cares,” added Goldberg.

Checking that the nameplate matched the name on his clipboard, Jon knocked on the door and then called out, “Missuz Bernhart, it’s time to take your pill.” Valeska Bernhart, Valeska Bernhart. It couldn’t be. Just a coincidence. Still…with such an unusual name, there couldn’t be two, could there? He’d soon find out.

Goldberg and Shapiro immediately shifted their focus. The sound of Missuz rang out a different tune to them. Stretching their five feet five and a half inch frames as tall as they could, they looked up at the brass nameplate on the door. Valeska Bernhart.

“I told you a new woman moved in, Shapiro. They made the floor co-ed.” Goldberg knew he had never told him, because he didn’t know any such thing, but in every group, there is always the one who liked everyone to think he was the one with the inside information. In this group, that person was Goldberg.

“What are you so excited for, Harry? Valeska could be a man’s name,” Oscar said.

Harry studied the name. His eyes narrowed. “You know who this is?  This is Valeska Bernhart.” He let his brain wrap around that thought. “But it can’t be. On the other hand, it isn’t a name like every Tom, Dick, and Harry. How many people could have the same name? And if it is, in which case as it happens, it would be Miss, not Mrs. You know, they go by their maiden names in show business.”

“What are you talking about?” And then as quickly as the words had come out of his mouth, the penny dropped. Shapiro recognized the name, too. “You think it could be? Sooner or later, we all end up in a home like this, so why not her? And why not here?” He had high hopes.

Harry Goldberg took great umbrage at the “home” reference. “Excuse me. West Palm Acres is a very upscale class retirement community; not, as you say, a home. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

“This could be my lucky day.” The white skin on Oscar’s face turned a light pink.

“Your lucky day? You? Oscar Shapiro? Why would she look at you? She danced with Valentino.”

“You’re crazy. That would make her six years old; or is it the other way? Two hundred years old.”

“On screen, they do things to make them look younger.”

“How do you know that?”

The Doctors. It’s a medical program on TV.”

As far as co-ed, there was no such differential at West Palm Acres. The apartments housed a mixed population with the widows outnumbering the widowers about four to one. There was also the smattering of elderly married couples and a few folks who had hooked up since arriving at the place; but permanent co-habitation of these unmarried couples was strictly forbidden. While they might eat together in the dining room and sit next to one another on bus trips and traipse down the hall when everyone else was asleep for nightly visits, living in a permanent situation together was frowned upon. The reason was obvious. It was strictly economical. Business is business. Why lease only one apartment, when you could get money on two apartments?

Harry Goldberg brushed a hand down the side of his nearly bald head; a reflex reaction, no doubt in reverence to his once thick dark brown hair that had turned to salt and pepper before losing the battle and finally revealing his bullet-shaped dome. He carefully adjusted his heavily framed bifocals. Only those closest to him knew that even with the thick glasses, he had to use a magnifying glass to read the newspaper. “How do I look?” he asked Oscar.

Looking him up and down, knowing what Harry was really thinking, Oscar was grateful that he still could boast nearly a full head of white hair. He replied with as much diplomacy as he could muster, not wanting to be mean, not wanting to lie, not wanting to tell the truth, “Like you always look.”

And this satisfied Harry.

Oscar was determined not to get his hopes up that this was really the Valeska Bernhart. Nevertheless, he carefully adjusted his recently acquired rimless progressive eyeglasses without the obvious bi-focal line that he was sure made him look younger. While Goldberg may have had the personality, he definitely had the looks.

“She must have moved in yesterday,” Harry said.  He pulled back his shoulders and puffed out his chest in an attempt to look vertical. It only made him more horizontal.

At last, the door to 4-J opened slowly. The occupant, a woman indeed, looked upat the trio of two old men and a clown. At just over five feet three inches tall, with hair dyed so black—or was it a wig—it looked like a crow was sitting on her head; with a face painted with black eyeliner, pink rouge, and bright red lipstick, Valeska Bernhart resembled an old-fashioned kewpie doll. Intentional or a slip of the make-up brush? Goldberg and Shapiro felt like giants. At five feet eleven, Jon, the actor/aide in the clown suit, looking down at the trio, wasn’t sure how he felt.

Oscar broke the silence following the stares. “May we accompany you to the dining room, Miz Bernhart?” He was sure his voice was self-assured and rather young sounding.

“We have a good table by the kitchen, Miss Bernhart. The food stays hot,” lied Harry Goldberg. He’d always hated “Ms.” A woman was either Miss or Mrs. An actress was always Miss, at least in public.

“By the kitchen, the food stays hot,” repeated Shapiro. No need to mention it was the worst seating arrangement in the dining room. If you had the seat with your back to the kitchen, every time someone came out with a tray, you risked getting bopped in the head with either the swinging door or the tray.

“I just said that. The food stays hot, Miss Bernhart,” said Goldberg.

For Oscar, there was no one here now but Oscar Shapiro and Valeska Bernhart. “Take my arm, Miz Bernhart. Please.” He extended his good arm out to her.

“Take your pill, Miss Bernhart,” Jon said. He knew actresses preferred ‘Miss’ even if they were married. This really was Valeska Bernhart. Everyone who was in the business knew who she was. She was hot for a long time, then nothing. A few years back, he was sure he’d seen a documentary about the film stars of yesteryear. Something like that. She did some things on Broadway, too. She was very good. Then he remembered his position and why he was here. It wasn’t to ogle old time film stars. It was about medication. He wasn’t sure whether she had taken her pill or not. Again, he reminded her.

A clown telling her to take her pill didn’t seem unusual to Valeska Bernhart who had just arrived from California at the insistence of her daughter who lived in Florida. To her alleged suitors she said, “I have to take the pill with food. Wait while I get my cane. I’ll go with you to the dining room.” The cane was new. It was all new.

To Goldberg and Shapiro, her distinctive Metro Goldwyn Mayer major studio accent and tone sounded like sweet butter melting in the center of a freshly baked, warm bran and raisin muffin—which regrettably was taboo on their respective diets.

Jon hadn’t seen anyone take their pills. His training had included knocking on the doors and shouting out the instructions. The rules hadn’t specified actually supervising them swallowing the pills. He didn’t think that would even be ethical. He wasn’t a doctor. He had never even played a doctor. He would just have to trust that they were following their regimen. Anxious to stick to his time-table, leaving the newly formed trio behind, he sauntered down the hall to the next door.

4-K. Arnold Sollowaywas the name on the brass plate. Jon rapped on the tangerine colored steel door and shouted, “Mister Solloway, it’s time to take your pill.” He waited. Again, he called out, “Mister Solloway, it’s time to take your pill.” He listened for movement inside. It was quiet. Too quiet. He didn’t like the feeling he was getting. He tried turning the knob. The door opened. First, he peered around the door and then went in slowly so as not to alarm the resident who may only be hard of hearing.

A man Jon assumed to be Arnold Solloway appeared to be asleep in the armchair in the living room. A distinct musty odor wafted up from the faded neutral wall-to-wall carpet that covered the floor throughout, except for the kitchenette against the wall where there was a small stretch of light tan linoleum. A bedroom was in plain sight. It looked like the bed had been slept in but not made up. A smattering of tables and chairs from a bygone era gave the whole space a rather depressing atmosphere. Jon gently nudged the shoulder of the man who was slumped over in his chair. “Mister Solloway, it’s time to take your pill.” He said it close to the man’s ear in just a bit above a whisper. But Jon knew his words were useless.

He had played a cop once on a TV show and his character was the one who discovered the dead man in his hotel room. And he had read enough crime novels to know dead when he saw dead. He lingered, unafraid, untouched by being in the same room with the body. As a trained actor, he couldn’t help try to figure out the back story. Who was Arnold Solloway? What was his life? Where was he from? Was there any family? He stood over the dead man in the threadbare chair and stared at him for a moment before reaching into his pocket for the pager that had been issued to him by the office in case of an emergency. This was definitely one of those. He punched in the code, explained the situation, was thanked by the staff member on the other end, and told it wasn’t necessary to wait in the apartment. It can happen that quickly. Arnold Solloway was fine early that morning when he was checked on, one of the features of West Palm Acres, not that they put that fact in the brochure. They preferred their residents alive, but did keep up a waiting list, so they never had to worry about filling a space.

Jon figured it would take them about three or four weeks to clean out the apartment, paint, clean the carpet and replace the name on the brass plate. He doubted he’d still be around to see who that was. He planned to be back in New York with an acting job. But you never knew in his business. At least this so-called role was giving him some income, and his agent could reach him easily enough. He’d be on a plane that same day if warranted.

Stepping from the apartment into the hallway, Jon was just in time to catch a glimpse of Harry Goldberg and Oscar Shapiro making their way towards the elevator with the petite Valeska Bernhart and her fancy dark mahogany cane with the silver handle between them. Her once famous legs were covered with a pair of black slacks, the fabric of which he couldn’t make out. And she was wearing a fancy type of tennis shoe, not the three-inch spike heels she had always been photographed in.

As the trio shuffled towards the elevator, the newcomer to West Palm Acres told her companions she was between thirty-one and death, had been married more times than she could remember, single now for thirteen or fifteen years. Warningly, in the event they had any ideas, she told them she didn’t want to get married ever again.  “Of course, I still have my mansion in Beverly Hills,” she lied with a perfectly straight face, with no intention of ever telling them the truth, “in case this place doesn’t work out for me. I never liked Florida. Too humid. Too blah. Servants are looking after the house. I didn’t want to sub-let. They ruin the place. You know how that can be.”

They didn’t know how that can be, but shook their heads, mumbling a “mmm” sound.

She had a captive audience and was milking it for all it was worth, adding or embellishing details and omitting certain others. Whatever made for a better story. Valeska Bernhart, the daughter of Minnie Rich and Herman Bernhart who came to the United States from Russia to start a new life and settled in Brooklyn. Valeska Bernhart from Brooklyn to Hollywood to Beverly Hills to Santa Monica to West Palm Beach. It was at 2251 North Gower Street, Hollywood 28, California, where it almost didn’t begin thanks to her eccentric neighbor, Pasha Elca (nee Elizabeth Cohen) from Boston, who claimed to be a scenario writer. Scenario writer? She couldn’t write a note for the milkman. Almost didn’t begin because the fool Pasha nearly burned down the place when she left some electrical device plugged in too long like an iron and, the next thing anyone knew, the fire department was there, saving the day, the apartment building and potentially a lot of lives and property. What else could be expected from a nut case like Pasha Elca who wrapped her money up in lettuce leaves in the icebox? As if a burglar wouldn’t look there first. Valeska moved to another place, still in Hollywood, and it wasn’t long before she was noticed and began working in films; not just working, starring. Then came the husbands, the houses, the daughter, the downfall. It’s a fact of life. What goes up eventually must come down. Rarely does it go back up again. Maybe if you’re very, very lucky or very, very smart.

The gentlemen were in awe, saying nothing.

“When I splashed onto the screen, you know what they wrote in Variety? Quote: Valeska Bernhart is Technicolor even when she’s in black and white. Unquote.”

So absorbed in her story, the gentlemen forgot why they were standing at the elevator. It was Valeska who finally pressed the elevator button down to the basement which only reinforced her theory that what goes up must come down.


Boston-born Susan Surman lived abroad for over twenty years in London and Sydney as an actress and playwright (Gracie Luck / Susan Kramer), performing on stage, radio, and TV. Author of Dancing at all the Weddings, Max and Friends, Sacha: The Dog Who Made it to the Palace, and numerous short stories, she lives in North Carolina where she is working on her new novel.

Click here to buy: West Palm Gig


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