Paper Accordions

http://www.princetoninfo.com/index.php?option=com_us1more&Itemid=6&key=7-28-10saccenti

I worked really hard on this story and got a lot of good feed back. I’m excited, because it’s the first real short story I’ve had published. Let me know what you think, even if you hate it.

The link is above so we can give U.S. 1 kudos, and the coppy is below.

Reprinted from the July 28, 2010, issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper
Paper Accordions
by John Saccenti

Zeus had always been a ladies man, catching the eye of more than a few fair-haired maidens during his life. It was something he was known for and something that got him into trouble more often than not.

But he was older now, and like others who reach a certain level of maturity, liked to think he was wiser. But a string of broken hearts, more changes of address than he could remember, 10 aliases, and an incident he simply called “the trouble with shotguns” were more than enough proof that you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks.

In other words, Zeus still had it and he wasn’t afraid to show it.

He stood in front of the men’s room mirror and dragged a comb across the top of his head, trying to arrange his once godlike tufts into what kind of maybe on a good day and in the right light might resemble a full head of hair. He counted the wrinkles in his face and admired the way his scrawny body hunched over just slightly. This was Zeus, King of the Gods, and it didn’t matter what he looked like, just so long as it was a look that worked for him.

He flashed himself a grin, the grin that had won him countless hearts, and turned to leave, the rubber soles of his shoes squeaking as he slowly pushed open the heavy bathroom door, and shuffled into the clubhouse.

Guests sat at long cafeteria-style tables, each covered in bright pink tablecloths and decorated with folded paper centerpieces that were supposed to resemble flowers but looked more like miniature paper accordions. It was supposed to be a dance to celebrate Valentine’s Day –– “be Mine,” and Cupid’s arrows, all that –– but love appeared to have taken a noontime nap, a sentiment that most of the Sunny Mountain Retirement Village seemed to be sharing at the moment.

Frowning ladies in dresses, each with a pretty carnation and drinking from lipstick stained coffee cups, looked up as he entered. Someone had put on the wrong music and the women’s sour looks could only mean that “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones simply wasn’t their cup of tea. Zeus stepped into the meeting room. He was dressed, pressed and ready to go. He was feeling good, and his blue eyes scanned the room, piercing the souls of everyone there.

“They look confused,” he said to himself. “They don’t know what to make of me. Figures.”

He snickered to himself and with a sly, 3,000-year-old grin the silver fox walked in.

“Sorry everyone,” said a voice, apparently the DJ’s.

Silence broke out and Zeus looked around confused, trying to figure out where the music had gone and who was speaking, before tripping into a large woman wearing a red sequined sweatshirt and blowing up balloons, strands of which got loose and floated 20 feet to the ceiling where they would begin a slow suffering that wouldn’t likely end until sometime around Easter. Always one to make the best of a bad situation, Zeus’s face landed in the lady’s bosom and his hand on her butt as the two fell to the floor. Balloon lady tried to get up, but Zeus was on top of her, hands wandering awkwardly, fluttering around in a pretend effort to help her up. Several people jumped to the pair and Zeus grabbed the women and rolled once more, trying to get one last feel, but also managing to wrap his legs in the brightly colored ribbon the woman had been using.

“The king strikes again,” he said to himself.

“Whoa there Mr. Z,” said balloon lady. The “Z” here didn’t stand for Zeus. No, here in the Sunny Mountain Retirement Village, the “Z” stood for Zephyr. Abercrombie Sneed Zephyr III. Zeus had a lot of fun with names, and with numbers.

Zeus, whose head had somehow migrated behind balloon lady’s knee, needed two volunteers to pick him up while another tended to the clearly flustered and more than slightly annoyed woman.

“Sorry everyone, let’s try something different,” the DJ’s somewhere voice said, and after another moment of dead silence the deep brassy sound of a saxophone –– made to sound like tin because of the stereo’s small speakers –– filled the room. Those who hadn’t yet dozed off now threatened to do just that.

Zeus looked to see where the voice was coming from. Feeling confident after his most recent success (still ongoing if you counted the volunteers still trying to untangle him), Zeus put on his heavily medicated-old-man-face and sat upright. From across the room he could see the ample backside of Cathy, a blonde staff nurse in her 40s with a penchant for wearing cartoon-themed scrubs. Today’s episode: ponies surrounded by heart-shaped horseshoes.

Cathy stood and faced Zeus, who turned a little sad inside when her butt moved out of his line of sight. She smiled at him for a second and Zeus felt that tingle that told him what he would be doing next, or a least, later, and with whom he would be doing it. He gave a dirty little grin back as his helpers, who had given up trying to untangle him, finished cutting him free.

Zeus shuffled his way to one of the long pink tables and was handed a piece of cake that was more frosting than cake and a cup of coffee almost too hot to touch. Three blue-haired spinster sisters, each a shriveled replica of the last, sat nearby trying to pretend that they weren’t excited he was near. Zeus ignored them. He had his sights set on a different prize this time.

“Mr. Z?”

Zeus looked up pathetically, cake hanging half off his dry, cracked lips, his hair mussed and his eyes confused. It was a look he’d perfected.

“I saw you fall,” said Cathy, wiping a curly tuft of hair from her forehead. Zeus tried to make sure that a lingering glance at her bosom went just a second too long. Cathy blushed.

“Huh? … I’ve fallen before. Do you know I’m a veteran? World War II. I was at Normandy. Not at D-day, but I came in behind them.” Zeus wasn’t shouting, but he knew how to be loud enough to be both annoying and endearing.

Cathy sat down beside him with a piece of cake of her own. Zeus’s fingers fumbled with a yellow paper napkin he’d grabbed from the table. Here was a real catch, one worth more than just a quick grab, he thought, and one certainly worth all the effort he’d put in.

“Yes, Mr. Z. I know. You’re a veteran and so is my father. We’ve talked about this before.” Cathy had known the frail little man for a few months. He was cute and grumpy and handsome and charming and annoying, just like the rest of the residents, just like her father had been.

She remembered the first time she’d met Mr. Z. She was a full-time nurse at the center and had found him wandering the halls in his white bathrobe and talking at the top of his lungs. She didn’t understand everything he was saying at the time, a lot of it sounded like made up words, but she remembered being struck at how commanding and imposing the little man seemed, despite his confused state. It was a trait she admired.

She’d spent more than a bit of time with him since then, an easy feat since she lived nearby and by herself. At first the meetings were nothing. A semi-planned, chance run-in, or an extra visit to the clubhouse on the off chance that he might be there were how it started. Eventually she found herself sneaking into his apartment from time to time in order to check on him, and the two ran into each other (sometimes literally) a few times a week. Soon, it was as if she couldn’t stay away from him, and even though it may have been wrong, Mr. Z made her feel special in a way she couldn’t explain, and she liked that.

She watched as the balloon lady adjusted her bra.

“Are you OK? I can’t believe you fell … into her … again.”

She couldn’t tell, but she thought she saw Mr. Z smile. She felt his hand brush up against her leg, giving her a tingle she had felt rarely since she was a teenager. It wasn’t the first time it had happened. At first Cathy felt strange about it, but as the two grew closer, not only did it not bother her as much, she actually found herself enjoying it.

“Harumph.”

The tingle faded.

“Harumph.”

Cathy shook herself from her daydream to see where the noise was coming from. It was hard to tell, since all she saw were the three old, frumpled look-alike-women, their long thin noses pointing in the air and their mouths smiling smugly.

“What?” Cathy asked.

Flanked on one side by a woman in yellow and on the other by a woman in purple sat a woman in pink, who squinted at Cathy through large thick-rimmed glasses as if she couldn’t see who was asking the question. To the left of her was the curly-haired yellow woman, who cupped a hand to her ear, pretending not to have heard the question and tapping her long painted fingernails on the table. To her right was purple woman, who just sat there, fingers smoothing across her thin pale lips, her sunken face looking perplexed.

Putting down his cake for a moment, Zeus looked at them. They crooked their heads down as if about to be scolded by their father and Cathy imagined that their eyes were big and round and droopy, just like a puppy’s gets when it’s peed on the rug.

“Pay no attention to them,” Zeus told Cathy. “Shriveled up old dykes is what they are.”

“Dykes,” he gloated to himself. Of course, he’d be the one to know about that. He was, after all, there for the big moment.

His turned his eyes to Cathy, who felt as if he were not just looking at her, but at her soul. She tried to hide her blush by shoving a bit of cake into her mouth. She wondered why he made her feel so strange, so … She looked down then straight ahead at a balloon sculpture as Zeus put his hand on her leg again, this time keeping it there for a moment before patting her like a father might do to his little girl.

Zeus knew his magic was working. He already had the three sisters under control –– they would do anything he said just for the hope of being with him again. He looked at the nurse, just barely making out the mushroom cap of flesh around her waist. He felt that old tingle, the tingle that made him feel 1,000 years younger. Zeus folded his yellow napkin over and over again, retracing the creases until they stuck. He knew as soon as he’d met Cathy that she was exactly what he needed. He’d always had a knack for picking the right girl.

Cathy took a deep breath and swallowed. What was happening? He was old? He was as shriveled as those rainbow colored harpies. More importantly, she was a nurse, and he was a patient. Most of the people she cared for just needed a little attention, and she was always happy to give some. When she started taking care of Mr. Z, things were no different. But things quickly started to change, and soon it was as if Mr. Z was in charge and all she wanted to do was take care of him, to make him happy.

Zeus had spent most of his recent years wandering, trying to find a new role for himself, one where he could do what he’d always done, and do it in a way that would draw as little attention as possible. He’d found the perfect spot in places like Sunny Mountain. Zeus had been at the retirement community for about a year, and despite getting along with everyone, he managed to blend in well enough so that no one really knew him, a trick he’d learned ages ago and one that always came in handy when he had to leave.

Zeus laughed when he thought about what the others would think, the old ones, the brothers, the sisters, the children and mothers, the ones he’d known so long ago. They’d say it was irresponsible, that things could happen, that the fates would catch up to him. But he didn’t care. He considered himself lucky. After all, he was helping people, and doing it in one of the few ways he could, or cared to, and he was using the few powers he still had to do it, which is more than he could say for the others.

“Tough for them,” he muttered.

“Sorry?” Cathy asked. She often found herself wondering what Mr. Z was thinking, a tendency encouraged by his habit of thinking aloud.

Mr. Z was longer on old and crooked than he was on young and virile. He could be rude and obnoxious and everyone knew that he was always trying to cop a feel. Few if any of the other residents spoke to him, except when he spoke to them, and even fewer people had anything bad to say about him. But then there were times when he seemed to be the center of attention, times when people couldn’t stay away from him and he commanded the room. Cathy had seen it a million times, women, and sometimes men, who had never given him the time of day suddenly hanging on his every word, staring like teenage girls into his eyes, while Mr. Z spun some story, usually about something ordinary and mundane, before slipping away for, well, whatever.

Mr. Z brushed up against her again and a moment of weirdness vanished, replaced by that tingle. She liked it, even though she knew better, knew that she should make him stop. She tried to catch her breath.

Zeus turned up the charm. He hadn’t had one so young in what seemed like forever, and he tried not to think about the nurse’s large fleshy butt bouncing on his lap.

He fiddled nervously with the paper napkin, knowing that in this case, the chase would make it even better.

“I used to be an electrician you know, had my own company selling fuses and switches,” Zeus’s voice trailed off.

“But that was after the war,” he continued. “I was a veteran you know. D-Day. I wasn’t there that first day, but I came in behind. We lost a lot of boys on those days.”

Zeus, of course, had been nowhere near France on June 6, 1944. In fact, if memory served him right, he had missed most of that war, opting instead to spend time in a South American village where clothes were mostly optional and he was, briefly, believed to be the living incarnation of a god so obscure that even he had trouble remembering who he was supposed to be.

Now he and Cathy sat there, eating cake and wiping the sticky frosting from their fingers –– he pretending to be oblivious to anything other than the large glob of icing that had landed on his chest, she trying to remember something she had to do, but coming up blank. Zeus stared at the mess he’d made on his shirt, pretending to be unsure about its origin. He was old, and some days he felt it, but today he didn’t.

Cathy noticed his shirt and leapt at the chance to help. Helping was, after all, her job. She grabbed a napkin and began dabbing the sweet white icing off the old man’s shirt. She bent in close and her body got warm with a heat that tingled, a heat that felt like she could wipe it away if she rubbed hard enough. She cleaned the old man up and looked up. It would have been awkward if she had been thinking clearly. All she wanted to do was kiss him. She felt his hot breath on her face and suddenly he didn’t look old. Suddenly he was young and she was beautiful and everything felt right. She licked her dry lips and looked at the smile Mr. Z was wearing.

Zeus put his hand gently on the back of her head before she leaned back up. No one in the room noticed as he put his hand back on her thigh, this time running it slowly up her thigh, pausing near the top to feel the warmth, then abruptly taking it away. A soft mew came from between Cathy’s bright red lips. All the clumsy stumbling and seemingly harmless touching, the stories and the look, all of it was going to pay off soon. Zeus knew he’d won and his mind raced back to when he was young and powerful. He felt strong again.

Cathy looked at Mr. Z, breathless, and saw a smile she had never seen before, all at once sly and loving and lustful, and she was his.

Somewhere near a place known simply as the Sunny Mountain Retirement Village, a young nurse wakes up. She is tired and sore and the man she remembers being with the night before is gone. She would lie there all day, not eating, not working, and not sleeping, ashamed at what she’d done and sad that he was gone. Inside she knew, knew not to look for him, knew that he would be gone and that she would be alone again. She put her hand on her stomach and rolled over, alone and in the dark. Outside the ground trembled with thunder and rain beat down on the window. On the bureau sat a paper napkin. It was folded into the shape of a swan and she cried.

John Saccenti has 15 years of writing and editing experience, including as a freelancer for U.S. 1. His work has also appeared in Newsweek.com, National Business Employment Weekly, and elsewhere. He lives in East Brunswick with his wife, daughter, and dog.

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