Emergency Alert

Ian Woollen

(USA)

The times were tumultuous, sure, but no different from any other. Wars, famine, floods, oppression. Social media clamored with threats of global climate collapse. Roy Lafollette was doing his best to ignore it all on a beach in southern France. Hiding under a large sun umbrella and a pair of expensive shades. He dozed intermittently. A recent widower and chronic homebody from Evansville, Indiana, Roy had reluctantly embarked on his first trip to Europe, guided by his late wife’s best friend, Gloria. She insisted foreign travel would broaden his horizons. Whatever that meant. 

Gloria lay beside him on a beach towel, sipping a cappuccino and thumbing through brochures for bus tours to Roman aqueducts and castle ruins. “Oh, man, this one sounds superb!” 

Same pitch, different day. Roy politely refused them all, using a variety of excuses, chiefly his need for close proximity to a bathroom. A longtime specialist in ostrich-like behaviors, ever since the shameful notoriety of his grandfather’s conviction for embezzling the city tax coffers in 1988, Roy preferred solitary pastimes, such as his baseball card collection.

“Would you like a bottle of fizzy water?” Gloria asked. “I don’t want you getting dehydrated.”

“Thanks, but as you know, I’m not the fizzy type,” Roy said.

“That’s for sure,” Gloria said and laughed. “Let me freshen up your lotion. You’re starting to look pink.”

“God forbid,” Roy said.

Gloria playfully bumped her forehead against his. She was a close-talker, frequently mussing his wispy hair and rubbing his shoulders and feet to help release his tension. She claimed that he had a lot of tension. Roy lay back and tried to enjoy the splash of sunscreen on his legs and face. Gloria squeezed an extra dab onto his nose. He’d actually known her longer than his wife, Ruth. They had been students at Ernie Pyle Junior High together and both played clarinet in the band. 

Roy wasn’t sure exactly about the location of this Mediterranean beach. His internal geo-locator was about two days behind, somewhere back near Avignon. An outdoor café on a stone plaza beside a misting fountain. A beggar child had approached him with an outstretched hat. Roy shooed away the kid and now felt guilty about it. Or rather, he winced through a series of unsettling twinges that he assumed was guilt. 

“What’s the matter, fella?” Gloria said.

“Feeling a bit ticklish,” Roy lied.

He slapped at his breast pocket to confirm the presence of his passport. Roy carried his passport everywhere. Whenever Gloria tried to cajole him into signing up for a local museum or vineyard tour, he cited his minister’s advice on international travel: never stray far from the hotel.

“Okay, back with some water in a few minutes,” Gloria said. “Will you be all right here alone by yourself?”

“Why is everyone so concerned about me being alone?” Roy grumbled.

“Because your wife of thirty years just passed, and you don’t even know how to boil an egg,” Gloria said.

“That’s an exaggeration.” 

“And Ruth’s dying wish, repeatedly expressed to me in her last week, was that I should take good care of you,” Gloria said.

“Too bad you didn’t get that in writing,” Roy said. He was secretly hoping to provoke Gloria’s wry laugh. He liked hearing Gloria laugh. She and Ruth had habitually teased each other into mellifluous chuckle fests that were silly and totally charming. But not anymore.

“Oh, I did get it in writing!” Gloria countered. 

She reached into a large, woven purse and pulled out her beach book. It was a tome. The collected works of some Victorian blowhard. Correction: it was a volume of nonsense that Gloria called ‘fan fiction,’ contemporary sequels that were even more melodramatic than the originals.

“I think you should explore this one,” Gloria said, opening to a page in the middle.

“Didn’t you read it aloud to me last night?” Roy said.

“Such an amazing coincidence,” Gloria said. “It’s clearly sending us a message.”

In the contemporary sequel, a cranky widower is taken on a trip to Italy by the best friend of his late wife (trampled by a horse in a steeplechase accident) and, big surprise, they fall in love and marry, after enjoying wild sex in a vat of grapes at a winery. 

“When you get back from the commissary, Glo, we can discuss the differences between this tawdry tale and our real life circumstances,” Roy said.

“Oh, don’t be such a stick-in-the mud,” she said, mussing his hair again, before stepping away.

Thoughts of Ruth intruded immediately. Her death, also accidental, was more genuinely tragic. While walking their dog along a sidewalk a few blocks from home, she had received an Emergency Alert text (quickly revealed to be a hack, a false alarm) about an incoming nuclear missile attack on the military base at Crane, Indiana. She dropped the phone and stepped off the curb and started to hurry across the street, presumably running home to inform Roy and get him to safety. A speeding, wrong-way driver, who had also just received the same text, ran them down, killing both her and the dog instantly. Or rather, the dog, yes, Ruth, no. She lasted a week in intensive care.

Condolences came pouring in from all fronts, especially after the newspaper article, via phone calls, handwritten notes and invasive knocks at his front door. Many of them from people Roy didn’t know.

“You poor man, so very sorry! She was an angel.”

“Such a loss! We’re praying for you, Mr. Lafollette.”

“Can’t imagine what you’re suffering.”

“Grief is a river, gotta go with the flow.”

Roy hated being the object of this attention. It gave him a rash. He knew it was well-meaning, but these communications only served to complicate his reactions to Ruth’s death. By creating such a hubbub, his wife had betrayed their quiet lifestyle contract. Ever since the headlines and humiliation of his grandfather becoming a jailbird, Roy had vowed to live under the radar, to maintain a low profile at all times. He worked solo as a day-trader from his basement. He did not belong to any civic organizations. He and Ruth rarely attended the neighborhood church, where his family had been members forever. Roy was occasionally spotted at the YMCA, and in the outfield stands at the high school baseball games.

Roy thought that Ruth was on board with his reclusive dictates, until the ordeal of probating her estate revealed otherwise. Jeez! When their attorney, Mitch ‘The Hammer’ Grindle, tried to explain the situation, spreading documents across the conference room table, Roy almost fainted. His wife had been making regular donations from her sizeable trust fund to charities across the region. Granted, it was under the guise of ‘anonymous’, but apparently everyone knew who was sending the checks. Six months later, having finally inherited Ruth’s money (they had no children), Roy was receiving daily solicitations for more dough. It was a pain in the ass. Thus, his acquiescence to a Gloria-led journey across the pond.

“I have good news for you,” she said, plopping down beside him on the sand with two bottles of Evian.

“Perfect timing,” Roy said. He opened the water bottle and chugged half of it.

“I’ve been doing a little research,” Gloria said, “and it turns out that we are only a short hike from an historic cemetery where some of your Lafollette ancestors are buried.”

“Why is that good news? Why would I want to visit a cemetery?” Roy said, “especially so soon after burying Ruth.”

“To reconnect with your heritage, your lineage. To bypass the curse of your crooked, politico grandfather.”

“This sounds like something Ruthie would come up with. Her mission in life was to fix me,” Roy said. “I was her reclamation project.”

“Not exactly,” Gloria said. “I think she gave up on that a long time ago.”

Silence, except for the splash of waves and caws of the gulls. A full minute of  French seaside silence, while Roy considered the implications of this information.

“Okay, take me to the damn cemetery,” he said.

They returned to the hotel to change clothes and gather a picnic. Gloria found a sign for the walking path behind the post office. Cobblestone switchbacks took them gradually up to a grassy promontory. The cemetery looked out over the medieval town and the array of modern resorts along the beach. The windswept, lichen-mottled gravestones and obelisks, tilting this way and that, were mostly illegible. Shorebirds floated on updrafts above the hotels and the church steeple, but still below Roy and Gloria’s vantage point.  

“It feels like we’re gazing down through a time tunnel,” Gloria said.

“Kind of dizzying,” Roy agreed. 

He impulsively reached over and grabbed her hand. It surprised them both. “Sorry, just feeling a little unsteady,” he said. “How did you figure out that I have ancestors here?” 

Gloria said, “Easy enough for an IT person. Anyhow, it takes just a few clicks to find stuff on genealogy websites. Do you know anything about this branch of the Lafollette family?”

“Not really.” Roy shook his head. “They were Huguenots, but I have no idea what that means, or why they came to America.”

“It means they were probably fleeing something,” Gloria said, “just like you.” She gave his hand a squeeze.

“I suppose we should take a picture,” Roy said.

That night at dinner in the hotel restaurant, Roy drank more wine than usual. They were seated at a table out on the patio. The candle flame on the table flickered back and forth. Roy ordered dessert and a brandy and began to question Gloria, rather bluntly, about her relationship history.

“You’ve been around the track…three times?”      

“My marriages are a matter of public record,” she said, stoically.

“I knew that first guy at the YMCA. He was a bit of a bicep-flexor.”

“Yeah, there was a period in my life when I seemed to gravitate toward bicep-flexors,” she said.

“Is that why you’re interested in me?” Roy asked. A bad joke, but it got her laughing.  

“No, I just want your money,” she said, which got him laughing. She added, “Here’s the thing. You and me, we’re known quantities. I think we could probably put together a few decent years, and it would help clear the slate.”

“Thazz interesting,” Roy said, a little tipsy. 

He finished his brandy and signaled the waiter by waving his empty glass in the air. “Glo, just so you’re aware, I’m donating all of Ruth’s trust money to the Animal Shelter. It was one of her places. And because, listen, our dog, Zipper, was killed in that accident too. Everyone spouts condolences to me about Ruth, but no one has said a thing about Zipper! We got him from the shelter. I miss my wife, but also my dog…”

Here, it got weird. Roy started to weep. He slumped forward into his crème brulé, crying for his dog and God knows what else. Gloria and the waiter hoisted him out of his chair and, one on each arm, slowly climbed the stairs to his room (the elevator was out of order) and somehow levered him into bed.

Another dawn in paradise. The beach was littered with debris, cigarettes and beer bottles, from the late-night revelers. Still fully dressed, having slept in his clothes, Roy Lafollette wandered out early onto the damp, cool sand to secure his and Gloria’s spots at the high tide line. He picked up some trash and carried it over to the bin by the cabana tents. A staffer from the hotel scurried forth, waving a forefinger, “No, no, monsieur, you don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t mind,” Roy said. “I want to help.”

He ferried a few more loads of trash to the bin. He bought a newspaper, a small bottle of aspirin, and a Coke at the concession stand that was just opening. It was an English newspaper, the Guardian. What the heck… let’s see what the Brits are up to. 

He had just gotten himself arranged in a lounge chair and snapped open the newspaper, when Gloria arrived with her cappuccino.

“Are my eyes deceiving me?” she said. “Is Roy Lafollette actually reading a newspaper?”

“You find that surprising,” he said.

“I thought you didn’t want to have anything to do with the big, bad world,” she said.

“I’m an investor. I should at least know what’s going on,” he said.

Gloria shrugged and took a noisy sip of her coffee. She said, “Roy, I stopped in your room on the way out here. The door was unlocked. I wanted to see if you were up yet, and I couldn’t help but notice that your bags are all packed.”

Roy nodded and said, “After my behavior last night, I figured you might want to cut this trip short.”

Gloria spouted her wry laugh. “Believe me, buddy, I’ve seen worse.”

“I’m sorry,” Roy said, “it won’t happen again.”

“No, no,” Gloria said, “I’m the one who needs to apologize.”

“For what?”

Gloria explained, “I’ve been awake for hours, stewing about something that I couldn’t name. It finally clicked. You, Roy, as a person, like everyone else, deserve to be wanted just for you. Not because of a promise to Ruth or as a project to clear my slate. You deserve a partner in your golden years who wants you for you.”

His mouth churning slightly, as if chewing on these words which, duh, he should have been able to voice for himself, Roy repeated, “I deserve someone who wants me for me…”

“It’s only natural,” Gloria said.

“Are you suggesting I should get another dog?”

“That would be one option,” Gloria said. 

Roy pretended to be looking at the newspaper. He turned the pages, until there were none left to turn. “So, we’re breaking up?” he said.

“If you want to call it that.”

“Or, are we still on for some Roman ruins today?” he said. 

Gloria reached over and mussed his hair. There was a bus tour for Nimes scheduled to depart at eight o’clock from a kiosk outside the post office. If they ate a quick breakfast, they could just make it.

Ian Woollen

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

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