Recovery cards come laminated, I guess because the Powers That Be keep expecting people to do something responsible with their four-minute re-dos. Nothing says “I’m going to repeat four minutes of my life for the good of humanity” like lamination.
I’m eighty-six years old, and I can tell you right now that ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of the idiots on this planet screw it up royally. Case in point: when I was in my twenties, a man actually used his four-minute re-do to get out of a date with me. One minute I’m sitting at a table not enjoying a salad, and the next I’m on the sidewalk with a note in my pocket.
What a waste. And don’t talk to me about time paradoxes. I don’t know why I remember the weak-ass salad, or how he could have left a note when he’d never met me, or any of that bologna.
At this point in my life, I don’t know a damn soul who hasn’t relived four minutes of their life.
Except me, of course.
I’m saving mine for the end.
The way my granddaughter Annie’s been showing up at the nursing home every day with trashy magazines and contraband chocolate, I figure the end is no longer a distant-future consideration. They’ve stuck me with a toothless roommate named Molly, whose dentures make a disgusting pop when she smacks them out of her gums. Trust me when I say that the curtain between our beds does not keep me from hearing her piss in the bed pan.
Among other things.
I keep my four-minute card tucked between my breasts. It’s itchy, but I always know it’s there. As carefully as I’ve treated the thing, the corners are still bent, the plastic grimy. They replaced everyone’s cards once, when I was in my fifties, after a cult coordinated to zip back in time and elect their leader as head of the country. For three days, we were all required to wear tangerine baseball caps and speak no louder than a whisper.
That was a mess worth seeing. They had to beef up the laws after that.
I hear Molly suck her dentures into her mouth, so I get a second of warning before she slides the curtain over with an annoying metal shing!
I miss doors that lock.
“Heya Penny,” she says with a sigh, like this is her sitcom and I’m her sidekick sounding board, “I was just thinking about my four minutes.”
No one on Earth isn’t thinking about their four minutes. It’s the one topic of conversation they all have in common: regret.
“I was thinking,” Molly says, licking her lips. She ought to ask the nurse for Chapstick. Or more water. And a tissue, while she’s at it. “What if I’d waited? Used my four minutes to get diagnosed sooner? You know?”
“We all gotta die,” I tell her, because Molly needs to hear it.
But Molly laughs like I’ve said something hilarious. “What’d you spend your four on, Pen?”
My name isn’t Pen. I’m not a writing utensil.
My typical cover story is that I used it to fix a botched batch of cookies and long story short, that was how I met my husband. It makes people laugh, and it embodies everything they’d once hoped for themselves.
The truth is, four minutes is a pittance. You can’t do a goddamn thing in four minutes.
I open my mouth to tell the cooking story.
Instead what I hear myself say is, “I still have mine.”
Molly titters. “Fine. Don’t tell me.”
I used to sleep like the dead. It’s a good thing we never had a fire, because my husband, Ray, would’ve had to take drastic measures to save my life. I would not have woken on my own.
I had good dreams back then, too. Dragons and princesses and knights you could convince to discard their chivalry, if you know what I’m saying.
Nowadays, I’m lucky when I can manage a solid doze. Molly’s a good girl and takes her meds, as long as she can have them with juice. Me, I hide the pills under my tongue like a cat.
Which is why I’m wide awake when the Well-Dressed Man shows up. I don’t know the guy, but he pauses in the doorway anyway, one hand on the frame. I snap my eyes shut because frankly, I don’t feel like giving him directions to the vending machine or whatever. Molly’s snores snuffle across the room, and I count to sixty before slitting my eyes open to see if he’s gone.
Not only is he still here, he’s rummaging in the pocket of my out-and-about sweater, which is hanging on the coat rack.
I could “wake up” and scream.
I kind of want to see what develops.
The Well-Dressed Man finishes with my sweater and moves over to the bedside table to flip through my trashy mags. He’s wearing gloves that button at the wrist, like a chauffeur.
He drops the magazines, dissatisfied, and scans the area like maybe the TV’s got something to hide.
He turns to me. I snap my eyes shut.
The guy’s got some nerve, because his next move is to start patting me down, like he used to work for the TSA. I shouldn’t be surprised by this development, and yet I leap out of bed—or, OK, I creak out of bed, but still—managing to bump him to the side as I meander to my feet.
My four-minute card topples out from between my breasts and clicks to the floor.
For a second, the Well Dressed Man and I both stare at it. I don’t know what he’s thinking. I’m wondering if my back still bends enough to let me get it.
The Well-Dressed Man scoops up the card in one swift motion and rushes for the window. He throws it open and launches himself over the sill.
But not before Molly catches him by the belt.
It’s a sight, I’ll tell you that. Molly’s holding the guy by the pants, bent double by his weight, and he’s waving his arms and legs like a bug about to be squashed.
Before I can do anything—like pluck my four minutes out of his sticky fingers—the Well-Dressed Man wriggles out of his pants and falls headfirst into the bushes.
We lean out the window in time to see him run across the lawn, boxers puffing in the wind.
“That was unexpected,” Molly says.
“He got my four-minute card.”
Molly holds up a brown leather wallet. “That’s OK, Pen. We’ll find him.”
Escaping through the window isn’t an option for Molly and me—my bones would crack like dry sticks—so we sneak through stairwells and hide behind potted ferns like I haven’t done since my teenage years.
I’ve still got the clothes they dropped me off in, so I’m primed for a night on the town, but Molly’s a nightgown girl through and through. Her only option was to put on the abandoned pants. They’re tight around her hips, so she left the fly undone and shrugged my sweater on top.
Aside from one close encounter with a night orderly, we escape the nursing home without incident.
I expected Molly to be a bundle of nerves once we got outside, to maybe start squealing about police or nurses. But while I’m half inclined to crane my head and stare at the stars, she’s got her eyes on the prize.
“What’s he want it for, anyway?” she asks as we totter along, just two biddies on a midnight stroll. I can only shrug. I guess there might be a black market out there for four-minute cards. It never occurred to me.
“If it’s something noble, will you let him keep it?”
“No,” I say. “I’ve got plans.”
Now that we’re outside I can see I’ve got twenty years on Ms. Molly. Maybe more. Whatever she’s got has aged her prematurely, but there’s still that light in her eyes. She can’t be more than sixty.
She wants to ask about my plans. I can see it in the way she’s tonguing those cheap-ass dentures. But she keeps her mouth shut, and I like her a little bit more.
We take three buses to get to the neighborhood on the Well-Dressed Man’s ID card, followed by a two-block trek and a flight of stairs. If this trip kills me, I’m coming back to haunt the sorry bastard.
There’s music blaring out of his door, some kind of candy-sweet pop that makes me want to vomit. His neighbors agree with me, because one of them’s banging on the wall and yelling creative expletives I wish I had time to record for future use.
I raise a hand to knock, but Molly must’ve taken Snooping 101 because she stops me with one hand while simultaneously running her fingers along the top of the door frame.
“There’s no way—” I start to say, but Molly removes her hand with a squeak of glee and holds up a dusty brass key.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” I say.
Molly inserts the key, and we step inside the apartment.
The place smells like a zoo. It smells so much like a zoo, in fact, that I’m amazed the odor of urine-soaked mulch hasn’t crawled into the hallway. I grope for the light switch, expecting to see a hundred cats.
The studio apartment is packed with cages that come alive with motion and indignant bird squawks the moment the light flips on. There must be fifty cages in here, lining the walls in stacks of threes. The birds are not your run-of-the-mill pollies wanting crackers. They’re exotic as hell, a blinding rainbow of plumage. One of them, near the window, is the size of my torso.
Poor birdie must be dying for a stretch. I can relate.
There are snakes, too, their cages forming a calmer pyramid at the center of the room. If the birds are legal—which I doubt—the snakes can’t possibly be. One of them’s fat as my arm. And my arms ain’t thin.
In a surprising break from the rest of the Well-Dressed Man’s decorating scheme, a goat pokes its head out of the kitchen to join the squawking with an irritated bleat.
I hope he’s not destined to be a snack for that snake.
Molly claps her hands over her ears, and I turn the light off before the neighbors come bust us for home invasion. It takes a few seconds, but the birds simmer back into their beauty rest. I guess I see why the guy blares pop music when he’s not around.
“All righty then,” Molly says. “I guess we know what he wants.”
I don’t see how. “Did the goat tell you?”
“No, silly. The cork board.”
Molly giggles—I can hardly breathe in this stench, and she’s giggling—and fishes a cell phone out of her pocket. She beams the flashlight at the wall.
I think I can be forgiven for not noticing the board through all the feathers and scales. If she wasn’t doomed by whatever she’s sick with, I’d say Molly should chance a late-life career as a detective.
There’s a bulletin board wedged between two bird cages, and it’s all gussied up to look like a cage, too. This guy’s apparently into scrapbooking, in addition to stealing exotic animals. Makes things easier for us, because he’s pasted a picture of a bird at the center of the board: a rare cerulean fluffy-tailed parrot.
OK, I don’t know the name of the animal. Or whether it’s rare. But it’s blue, it’s got a fluffy tail, and it looks like a parrot.
It’s clearly the Well-Dressed Man’s current obsession.
“He’s going to use the four-minute card to steal that bird,” Molly says.
“If he hasn’t already.”
“It’d be here.”
She scratches her chin. I wonder if she’s got kids or anything. “It’s probably at the zoo,” she says.
We stare at the creepy paper birdcage and its soon-to-be-sad blue occupant. “Even if we go to the zoo,” I say, “it won’t help anything. He won’t be there. He’ll be traveling back in time to steal the bird.”
Even optimistic Molly’s got no response for that. I sit down on the cage behind me before remembering what’s inside. Since I don’t want to die via venomous bite to the ass, I slide to the floor instead.
It’s probably covered in piss, and I may never be able to get up again, but who cares? My recovery card is gone. There’s nothing left to look forward to.
To my surprise, Molly joins me. “What was your plan?” she asks. “For the card?”
I plop my hands in my lap. Pins and needles are already running wild in my crossed feet. “Right before I take my last breath, I’ll go back to the moment they dropped me in the home, and I’ll tell them not to bother visiting because I hate them.”
Molly frowns. She’s probably thinking about how she’s only seen the one girl hanging around my side of the bed, and she’d be right. Annie’s OK, I guess, but surely she’d rather be elsewhere. At least if I go back and tell them not to come, their absence will be on my terms.
Yeah, I know. I’ll give you a second to stop weeping over my pathetic old-lady story.
“Why not stop them from putting you in a home at all?” Molly asks.
“You think I didn’t try back then? I’d rather tell them to go to hell.”
“And you’ve been planning this your whole life?”
I twist my lips, because really, this kind of sharing is not my thing. But who else am I gonna tell? We’re two dying ladies. If she’s not exactly old, well, we’re still on the same page of life. “I was gonna use it to make sure Ray knew how much I loved him. That was my husband.”
I don’t have to tell her how the plan went south. She’s smart enough to guess it. But now that I’m talking, I figure I might as well finish the story. “The bastard screwed me over and died first. I couldn’t even save him with my four minutes, because he made me promise not to.”
Molly runs a finger along the cage to her right—bird, not snake—and I can’t help but notice how her hand’s trembling. She’s spending a lot of energy to help me out tonight.
“I used my four minutes to win a hand of poker,” she says. “We weren’t even playing for money.”
Obviously not, since it’s illegal to use recovery cards for real gambling.
I can’t help it. I burst out laughing. “What were you playing for?”
The pun strikes me so hard that I can’t keep the giggle from bursting out of my chest. I’m not a giggler—I’ve never been a giggler—and yet out it pops, rising like a bubble, completely irrepressible.
And then we’re both laughing, my stomach aching like I’m trying for a sit-up. My chest squeezes, but it’s the good kind of pain, and I don’t try to stop it. Molly falls back, literally rolling on the floor. “I gave up my card for peanuts!” she shrieks. It’s such a stupid joke, but it clicks the giggle fit up another notch, sending tears gushing down my cheeks. It’s such a deep laugh that sobs start hitching into the mix, too, which only makes me laugh harder.
I’m still hiccuping when Molly sits up, suddenly. “I know where he is,” she says. “I know why he hasn’t used the card yet.”
I stare at her, still half drunk on laughter. Or lack of oxygen. “What? Where?”
Molly points to the carefully arranged cork board. “A new bird needs a new cage.”
The closest pet store opens at nine. The sky’s still dark, but we’re pretty sure the Well-Dressed Man (a nickname that no longer fits now that I’ve seen his apartment) doesn’t care much about adhering to store hours.
Luckily, it’s close enough to walk.
It’s hard to believe the guy wouldn’t have dashed through the aisles to swipe what he needed as fast as possible before hightailing it to his apartment. But there’s a reason he hasn’t used the card yet; when Molly and I slip into the store, we find him in front of the parakeet cage, transfixed. He’s not as well dressed now, but at least he took a few minutes to pull a pair of jeans over his boxers.
All those fancy birds at home, and he’s staring at a bunch of budgies.
Not just staring. Cooing. They hop from perch to perch, oblivious, while the guy who stole my recovery card whispers to them like they’re his best buds.
“You take this end of the aisle,” Molly says. “I’ll sneak around the other side. Then we’ll have him surrounded.”
“Until he knocks me over with a budgie feather.”
I’m eighty-six after all, and I’ve been up all night riding buses and breaking into weirdo apartments. I’m not exactly primed for a fight scene.
“Got a better plan?”
Molly rolls her eyes. I have provoked a sliver of annoyance. Finally. I didn’t think the woman had it in her. “All right,” I say, “but what am I supposed to do? Ask him nicely for the card back, pretty please?”
“Distract him,” she says. “I’ll handle the rest.”
I’m not convinced, but I don’t have a better plan—or any plan—so I follow hers.
When we’ve sneaked up close enough to hit him with a dog toy, I say, “Hey, you! Burglar!”
The Well-Dressed Man startles. He’s been so focused on the parakeets that he genuinely didn’t see us enter, even though let’s be honest, we’re not exactly stealth material. For a moment, he just glares at me like I’ve interrupted a sacred moment.
“Finders keepers,” he says.
Molly’s bending to pick up a container of birdseed. She unscrews the top, slowly, and begins to peel the tinfoil lining.
Her plan is something weird, then. Great.
“Creative comeback,” I say to cover Molly’s rustling. “Stealing a recovery card from an old woman. You should be ashamed.”
He shrugs. “What do you need it for? You’re half dead.”
“You’re not wrong,” I tell him. “But I don’t like it when people take my things.”
The man pulls the card out of his pocket like a taunt. “Too late.”
Molly balances the birdseed in one hand and shimmies toward the parakeet cage like the world’s weirdest waitress. All of a sudden, I understand her plan.
“I’m going to call the cops, young man,” I say, taking a step back.
The man moves toward me, teeth bared.
It’s all the space Molly needs. She slides the cage door open, simultaneously dumping the birdseed on the Well Dressed Man’s head.
The parakeets pour out of the cage and descend upon the smorgasbord that is his head.
You’d think the dude would be thrilled, but apparently feathers in your ears and beaks in your hair are not fun even for the bird-obsessed, because he screams and drops to his knees. I can barely see him through the cloud of feasting parakeets.
Molly slides forward with the grace of a geriatric Olympic gymnast. She flits around the celebrating birds, plucks the recovery card out of the man’s hand, and shoves it into mine.
We pull the fire alarm on our way out.
“I hope they catch all the budgies,” Molly says as we hurry to the corner to call a cab.
If we lived in Canada or some shit, I’d worry. But it’s warm here year round.
I’m rooting for the birds to go free.
The first person I see when we stroll into the lobby is my granddaughter, Annie. Her face is ghostly pale, and there are tear tracks running down her cheeks.
When she sees me, she runs.
“Grandma,” she says, “what the actual fuck?”
I didn’t think I had any more laughter left, but that gets me. It really does. I exchange a glance with Molly, and then we’re both giggling up a storm while Annie looks back and forth between us like we’ve been extremely naughty children. I don’t care much about the anger part, but the worry in her eyes sobers me up.
Maybe the girl does care.
“I’m sorry, doll,” I say, patting her cheek. Old ladies get to do that. It’s practically required. “I needed one last adventure.”
Annie hooks her arm through mine, waving off the nurses who look ready to swarm. “Next time, call me. I’ll take you on an adventure.”
“No bingo,” I say.
“You’d prefer zip lining? Rock climbing?”
I pinch her arm. “How about the zoo?”
“You got it.”
Annie settles me into bed herself, with a kiss and a promise to return in the morning. The nurses fuss and scold, but I’m perfectly fine. I crab my way through their exams, while Molly accepts the poking and prodding without complaint.
My eyelids are heavy, ready to send me into a deep sleep for the first time in ages, but I switch on my bedside lamp and pull the curtain to look at Molly. Her eyes are closed, but her lips are quirked up like a question.
“You asleep?” I ask.
“I’d give you lessons in sounding annoyed,” I say, “but I’m not gonna be seeing you much longer.”
Molly opens her eyes. “You’ve got longer than you think. Look at the adventure we just had. You’ll probably outlast—”
I untuck the recovery card from my pocket and flick it onto her bed. “I’m not the one who’s leaving.”
Molly fumbles the catch. The card falls onto her blanket. She just stares, like she’s afraid to touch it.
“Go on,” I say, “get that early diagnosis. Make ‘em cure you. Trust me, you need twenty more years to learn some decent sassing.”
“What about telling your family to go to hell?”
I shrug. “I can tell them that any day.”
I wake from a dream involving a castle and a goddamn prince. I’m moving up in the dream world. There’s sunlight streaming in through the blinds, a bouquet of flowers in the window.
The other bed is empty.
The chair is not. Annie’s dozing with her head propped in her hands. When I say, “Where’s Molly?” she startles awake.
“Who?” she says.
“My roommate. You know. Dentures. Incurable optimism.”
Annie laughs and rubs her eyes. “I don’t know anyone whose optimism couldn’t be cured by you, Grandma. But I got you got a private room, remember? The bed’s for when I stay over.” She yawns, stretches. “I guess I fell asleep in the chair.”
I can’t help it. I’m grinning. Good for Molly.
It’s like I said before—I don’t know how it’s possible for me to spend my four minutes to give Molly a second chance, and yet still remember Molly to give her the second chance. Paradox, shmaradox. I don’t know how this shit works.
Molly ain’t here, so I gotta assume she made it.
“Let’s get dressed,” Annie says. “Still feel like hitting up the zoo?”
I glance out the window again, just in time to see a parakeet land on the sill. He fluffs out his green chest feathers, chirping a pretty song as the sun beams bright and warm.
“Absolutely,” I tell my granddaughter, even though my muscles are sore from last night’s exertions. “It looks like a beautiful day for an adventure.”