The blue Tesla Model S, gleaming in springtime sunshine, was clogging traffic, double-parked in front of Sweet Greens in downtown Bethesda as if the occupants were debating whether to eat there or one of the other three—or was it four?—organic-salad-in-a-compostable-bowl places on the block.
The vehicular faux pas was no less offensive than the Range Rover with its rear wheel up on the curb in front of Warby Parker, the sidewalk-hogging blockade of yoga-outfitted moms pushing Mima strollers, or an aggressive expletive-muttering panhandler hoping to arouse charitable guilt. But the Tesla caused the most savage reaction. Dozens of drivers leaned on their horns, notwithstanding their bumper sticker advocacy for tolerance of all nature of human and animal rights, beliefs, and causes.
Alerted by the inharmonious racket more ear-jarring than most music created in the past two decades, David Fordham swiveled his chair toward his corner office window and was looking outside when his mobile chimed, then, most alarming, his landline buzzed. Alarming because there was rarely cause for David Fordham to be called at the office—not now or in any of his almost thirty years at the firm. Which meant…
David pushed upright out of his chair and hurried into the hall. Sliding his suit jacket on over a crisp dress shirt with French cuffs, he nodded and smiled his way past the busy secretaries, paralegals, associates, and junior partners who always made sure to greet him, holding David’s stature as a senior partner in the firm in somewhat misguided reverence.
Bypassing the elevator for the stairs, David hurried down five flights and was out on the traffic-snarled street, making his way somewhat breathlessly toward the Tesla, at the wheel of which was a woman who had been mistaken hundreds of times over the past 40 of her 71 years as Lauren Hutton—the resemblance both remarkable and stunning, right down to the gap between the front teeth of her otherwise perfect smile.
David rapped on the driver’s window and announced himself loudly enough to be heard over all the car horns. “Aunt Minna. Aunt Minna!”
“Sinky,” she beamed, using the nickname she’d given him shortly after his birth, shortening his middle name—Sinclair—mere breaths after scolding his parents for adding yet another David to the family. “I was just trying to call you.” Her strong voice was muffled behind the closed window. “You always know when I’m here.”
This was true. David Fordham did not believe in premonitions, sixth senses, or any other extrasensory perceptions, but undoubtedly shared a—whatever you want to call it, perhaps—common wavelength with Aunt Minna. And had for as long as he could remember. Today, the simultaneous ringing of his phones clued him she was in town.
Inside the Tesla, Minna shrugged with carefree glee, “I’d put down the window, but I don’t know how.”
Whoever was in the passenger seat, possibly a new boyfriend, David thought—mid-thirties, unshaven (weren’t they all now at that age), uncombed hair, dark athletic wear—looked to be attempting a patient explanation to Minna of what David assumed were the over-technologized intricacies of lowering the car window.
“You’ve got traffic backed up,” David kindly pointed out, because Minna could be oblivious to the obvious—a trait that while technically selfish was not accompanied by any meanness of spirit and had often served her very well. “There’s a garage just down the block,” he suggested.
Minna and her passenger shared an aghast reaction to the word “garage.”
Presumably at Minna’s prompting, her young(ish) Rocawear-garbed passenger exited the wizardly vehicle and gestured for David to take his place. “Your aunt’s a trip,” he laughed.
“Second cousin, actually, but…” David brushed away additional explanation. “It’s too long a story.”
Minna’s friend didn’t care. As David settled into the sleek car, the fellow leaned down and waved bye to Minna. “Enjoy.” He closed the door with a rock-solid thump.
Minna patted David’s thigh. “So nice to see you, Sinky.” A trace of her Savannah childhood remained in her voice.
“You, too.” He felt 30 years younger than just ten minutes ago back at his desk, having been passing the afternoon scrolling through spreadsheets detailing the extensive assets of the trust that was his only client—the same trust of which Minna was sole trustee, an appointment created upon the (some had said suspicious) death of her first husband almost four decades ago. “But we are blocking the road.”
“Oh…” She seemed not to have noticed, needing the occasional reminder that the world didn’t revolve around her despite decades of examples to the contrary.
As vehicle horns increased their protests, David sensed Minna’s hesitation. The last time he’d seen her at the wheel of car was 15 years ago, shortly after she’d taken her since-deceased fifth (and final) husband’s vintage Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite out for a drive and accumulated a series of traffic violations over three states it took David the better part of the following year to resolve. “Do you know how to drive it?”
“Not really,” she whispered, then laughed, as though having let him in on a secret—of which they already shared many.
“Should we switch then?” he suggested.
“By all means. Because if you don’t like it we’ll have—” She stopped. “Oh, hell, I’ve forgotten his name.”
“The one who was just sitting there. The salesman.”
Ah, salesman, David thought, as shouts of protest joined the horns blaring at them. “I was thinking maybe boyfriend.”
“Oh, Lord no. Not anymore. No more boyfriends or husbands.” To date, there had been many boyfriends and the five husbands, some simultaneously. Of the first four spouses, two died and Minna divorced the other two. When she divorced husband five, he became the dead-or-divorced tiebreaker until months after the decree was signed when Minna remarried him. Within two years however he died, and the marriage score again became tied: three dead and three divorced—a deadlock now destined to eternity if Minna was to be believed about no more husbands.
As for the Tesla, David assumed: “So, this isn’t yours then?”
“Nooo. But I thought you might want it. Or one like it. I know you prefer red. And this is—well, obviously—blue. Malcolm says—” She stopped again. “What about that? I just remembered his name. Malcolm.”
“Where did he go, anyway?” David wondered, looking around.
“I put a hundred dollars in his Uber account to get him back to the showroom.”
“I see. Well, let’s change places and hope no one kills us when we get out of the car.” David braved the incensed mob first, offering polite apologies to the inconvenienced many as he hustled around the driver’s side to open Minna’s door.
She emerged, tall, slim, spectacular. Her shoulder-length auburn hair was wavy with blond highlights. She wore a flowing long-sleeve yellow-and-black fantaisie giraffe dress (that Dior called a blouse even though it extended to the ankle). Minna waved and smiled, calling out, “Hello! Hello!” as though those enflamed from being stuck in traffic were the paparazzi. “Sorry for the car misbehaving.”
Some old enough to remember the 70’s wondered if she was Lauren Hutton. Those born more recently considered she might be someone famous, but since they didn’t know who concluded she mustn’t matter. The panhandler, meanwhile, muttered a string of obscenities that ended with, “bitch,” but those who overheard pretended they hadn’t, believing it politically incorrect to think poorly of those who’d run plumb out of luck. Overall, it was not an unusual phenomenon in Minna’s wake.
Once David had her situated in the passenger seat, he quickly settled behind the wheel and acclimated himself to the vehicle’s controls, pulled forward, and was immediately impressed. The Tesla felt heavy, solid, and very fast. He suddenly yearned for some open highway. Unfortunately, the nearest potential span of that, I-270 heading north to Frederick, was only free of commuter crawl between one and three in the morning. “I definitely can see what the fuss is all about,” he said of the car.
“You want it then?” Minna asked.
“I’ll say no because I can’t have you buying me one.” Reaching the end of the block and not quite stopping before turning right on red, David asked, “What’s brought this on, anyway? What brings you up this way?”
“Sinky, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to stop worrying about heaven.”
David laughed, “What? About getting in? Don’t worry, you’re a lock.”
“Oh, I’m sure. That’s what’s got me worried.”
“Worried you’ll get into heaven?”
“Yes.” She smoothed the front of her designer dress. “I’m worried about who else will be there when I arrive.”
“Hm.” He considered that. “Well, where can we have one of our chats?”
With dexterity only surprising to those who didn’t know her, Minna pivoted toward the backseat and retrieved her embroidered animal-print Dior bag that cost more than her dress. Dipping surreptitiously inside, she withdrew a baggie, and sang, “Look what I have, Sinky.”
He glanced over and smiled.
“Peanuts,” she exclaimed, then tempered her joy, needing to confirm: “There is a Costco nearby isn’t there?”
“Costco—now there’s something you need to hope is in heaven.”
“As if I’m not worried enough.” Minna fed David a roasted, salted peanut moments before he turned onto Rockville Pike, where it was difficult to exceed the speed limit despite aggressively changing lanes.
“Car does bring out the douche bag in one,” he sideways complimented, barely clearing an intersection as the signal turned red.
During the twenty minutes it took to reach Costco, their conversation centered on White Flint Mall, which, save Lord & Taylor, Minna saw had been demolished. Minna did not take kindly to having places that once brought her pleasure being torn down, as if her memories were entitled to rights of possession in perpetuity. She was going on about that—naming all the real estate developers she’d known (and in one case married), rating them in order of who was the biggest whore—as David began cruising the crowded Costco lot, looking for a space.
The location was not the most Aunt Minna-ish of neighborhoods, so he was hoping to park near the entrance, when she finally said, “Just put it anywhere. The salesman—Malcom…” She remembered his name again. “…said they’re very hard to steal.”
“Good to know.” David took the next open spot, squeezing between a landscaper’s mud-splattered pick-up and a battered 12-year-old Hyundai Azera missing its rear quarter panel. After figuring how to turn the Tesla off, he got out to open Minna’s door.
Looping arms, they strode toward the entrance.
She already had her Costco card ready. “What a charming assortment of people,” she appraised sincerely, which was not the adjective David imagined would be the choice of many, but Minna tended to evaluate those lacking significant wealth as though they might be good help.
Entering the store, when the red-vested greeter counted them on her clicker, Minna told David, “I’ve always wanted one of those.” He assumed she was referring to the mechanical counter, not the woman.
Once inside, surrounded by displays of mobile-home-sized TV’s, toothbrushes sold by the hundred lot, and fifty-gallon drums of shampoo, Minna squeezed David’s arm, announcing over the bulk-buying din: “It’s like a bazaar.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
Unlike in Bethesda, where the Wanna-have-its’ envy drove the market, Costco shoppers in Wheaton paid little attention to Minna. She didn’t stand out among the colorful wardrobes and international palettes of those born in places Minna would never visit, having vowed not to leave the country after getting sick with her third husband in the Caribbean. That illness had required unique medical treatment by a doctor working out of a shack along a dirt road overrun with chickens that were free range before the term had ever been coined by some marketing whiz.
Minna glided to the clothing section, where her height proved advantageous to reach the top hoodie in a mountainous stack. She unfolded it, held it to David’s chest, and said, “You’ll look just like Malcolm the salesman. Sold.” She draped the $13.99 garment over her $3,000 handbag and proceeded to the next aisle, where, with the deft touch of a magician, she folded a hundred dollar bill into the front pocket of a pair of woman’s jeans, set them back on the pile, and walked away.
Having seen her perform similar feats countless times, David once asked if she wasn’t tempted to hang around and see who found the money. Minna replied she wasn’t that patient, then later admitted that was a lie, saying instead that she didn’t want to be disappointed, because the reality of who found that money would never be as good as who she imagined it would be.
At self-checkout, Minna paid for David’s hoodie with a Costco Visa card, the bill for which would be sent to and paid for by someone on one of the other floors of the firm where David was paid handsomely to do nothing other than insure the continued presence of Minna as a client. Stuffing her purchase in her Dior bag, she led David to the food counter, where, fifth in line, she rubbed her palms together in anticipation, causing light to reflect off her flawless 6-carot diamond ring like a searchlight.
In a Michelin-star restaurant, Minna would expect to be seated sooner than immediately. At Costco, she could wait with the patience of a Buddhist monk.
She ordered soft-serve vanilla ice cream in a cup—there was only one size, which was substantial enough to hide a pony in its shadow—and had the server add liberal amounts of the store’s own Kirkland-brand chocolate sauce. Meanwhile, David got two plastic spoons and a small mountain of paper napkins.
They rejoined on opposite sides of one of a dozen metal picnic tables, where they became engulfed in the cacophony of fellow Costco members—many of them high-strung children—who were performing gastronomical assaults upon extended-size hot dogs and pizzas the circumference of a tractor wheel.
Minna brought out her baggie of salted peanuts and put a layer atop their sundae, which they proceeded to share.
“Mm,” she savored. “Almost as good as the chocolate-covered ice cream bar with almond pieces they had the nerve to stop selling.”
“Almost,” David agreed, enjoying a spoonful, then another, and another, as Minna continuously added more peanuts.
When their feast was half-finished, David asked, “Now what’s all this worry about heaven and who’s going to be there?”
“Oh, Sinky, I’m betwixt and between.” Minna had no problem conversing at high enough decibels to be heard, completely unconcerned about others knowing her business. “I’ve got five ex-husbands and the last thing I want is a fistfight if they’re all waiting when I get there. Even if there’s only three of them who made it in—which I figure is about right.”
“I doubt there’s fistfights in heaven.”
“Always a first time.”
“Well, if only three made St. Peter’s cut—assuming he still has the job—and those three include the two you divorced, that will only leave one who died.”
Minna was shaking her head as she ate more chocolate-drenched ice cream. “I see where you’re going with that, but you’re wrongly assuming the two I divorced won’t want to see me. Remember, I ended up on better terms with them both after we divorced. The sex was so much better. I always found marriage to put a bit of a damper on sex. It made it so…expected. But you must know that.”
“My sex life is fine.”
“If you say so … then again, you and Gretchen never had children, which helps.”
“Neither did you.”
“Pleasant reminders of which greet me every day.” Minna tilted her head toward a small boy who’d taken his foot-long hot dog from its bun and was waving it like a flag, causing mustard to splatter his smaller sister as though she was a Jackson Pollock canvas.
“You would have been an interesting mother,” David appraised not for the first time.
Minna laughed. “I think not.” She took a few napkins from the pile David had set on the table and wiped her mouth. “I would have cracked in about a week.”
“Well, you were an interesting aunt. Pretend aunt.”
“Aunt—that was your ridiculous parents. I wanted you to just call me Minna, but they said it sounded disrespectful. Because of the age difference.” She groaned, making it sound tiresome. “They first suggested Miss Minna and I think I threw something at your father. Cousin Minna was another option. And I don’t remember how, but Aunt became the titular compromise. And then it rather grew on me. But you’ve gotten me off point, Sinky.”
“Yes, back to heaven.” David tilted the cup in Minna’s hand so he could scoop what remained. “Because I’m thinking the real issue about these ex-husbands all lined up waiting for you in the hereafter…” He ate ice cream, then pointed at her with his spoon. “…is that you don’t want any of them to be there.”
“How dare you,” she smiled, tugging the cup from their joint grasp and turning aside so she could polish off what little was left. One of their enjoyable tussles was to see who got the last bite of whatever they shared.
Once Minna finished their treat, David dutifully put the chocolate-smeared cup in a trash can and caught up to her at the exit. There, a red-vested employee checking Minna’s receipt against her hoodie purchase asked if the diamond in her ring was real. She lied: “Fake as L.A. tits.” Which got a laugh, not because the man understood the reference but because men almost unanimously found it (depending upon the situation) funny, charming, arousing, or all three, to hear Minna say “tits.”
Back in the Tesla, with David working through a mission-control checklist to get the car started, Minna came clean: “You’re right about me not wanting any of them there.” She was referring to the prospect of her ex and deceased husbands awaiting her arrival inside the pearly gates. “If it was just for a weekend…? Okay. Maybe two or three of them. But eternity…? That sounds more fitting of hell. Because, and this may be a broad assumption on my part, but for men to think its heaven, won’t the clouds necessarily be laced with Viagra?”
David said, “I don’t really see heaven full of hard-ons.”
“Then there aren’t going to be any men there.”
“I think once you get to heaven all that’s behind you.”
“Really? The Gospel According to David. No sex?”
“I think so. I think the pleasures are going to be…”
Minna found the word for him: “Less pleasurable.”
“No.” He tried other descriptions. “More esoteric. More cerebral.”
“Oh, God… You mean like art museums?” Minna liked art, as evidenced by many likenesses of her—painted, sketched, sculpted, and photographed—which continued to hang on walls or remained tucked secretly away in the portfolios of the artists for whom she’d posed in various states of dress (most recently as five years ago). Museums, however, she tended to find snooty and dull.
“I think it all changes in heaven,” David proposed. “I don’t think it’s so tactile. I don’t think you touch in heaven. I think you just feel. This warm, peaceful, placidity.”
“Placidity? For all eternity? Sinky, you’re supposed to make me feel better. I’m getting depressed.”
“Well that’s just me.” He was still trying to figure how to start the car.
“Ask your Gretchen what she thinks about placidity.”
“Maybe heaven is going to be whatever you want it to be. Not one size fits all. How could it be? It must be fluid. Always changing. Whatever you want could switch from moment to moment. You want to be a child again, you’re a child. You want to be with one of your ex-husbands, he’ll be there—even one whose soul may not actually be there, because his embodiment will be there just for you.”
“You must be thinking of Charles,” Minna contemplated. “I don’t see him having made it. He’s probably been building condos for the devil since the day he died. Which on one hand is a shame, because he is the reason we have all this money. And he did die young—well, when I was young. He wasn’t so young—although I wouldn’t mind being sixty again.”
“He was fifty when he died.”
“Was he? I remember him as much older.”
“Because you were much younger.”
“Not quite thirty.”
“You were twenty-five.”
“You should check that when you get back to the office.”
“You were twenty-five and I was ten. In fifth grade. I remember you cried. Then in sixth grade I started private school you paid for. Then college. Law school. All of which you paid for.”
“I needed to make sure there would be someone to take care of me in my old age, Sinky.”
“As if you were thinking of that back then. You wanted someone to spoil.”
“And didn’t I do a good job?”
“Yes,” he smiled. “You did.” And with that, he got the car started.
“Well, if Charles is in heaven,” Minna continued, “I would at least like the chance to thank him for the money. You should, too.”
“We’ll say thanks and then he’ll be off, right? Not with me for eternity?”
“I mean surely there will be younger women he’ll want—probably already is with.”
“If that’s his version of heaven.”
“Oh, believe me…”
David steered the Tesla onto Georgia Avenue, where traffic resembled a very long double-file parking lot.
“But what about you, Sinky? You’ll be in heaven with Gretchen. You won’t have time for me.”
“I have time for you now and I’m with Gretchen. Besides, in heaven, I think you get your own me. And Gretchen will get one of me for herself—if that’s what she wants.”
Minna was beginning to like the sound of this. “And you and I will go to Costco.”
“Wonderful.” Satisfied, Minna withdrew the just-purchased hoodie from her bag and set it on the console. “Text me a picture of you with it on so I can see what it looks like.”
“And give Gretchen a kiss for me.”
“You could stay for dinner with us.”
“Next time. Tonight, I think I’ll go…” She contemplated her options. “…it was so hot when I left Palm Beach this morning.”
By morning, David knew she probably meant noon, given the time she arrived at his office.
Minna got out her phone. “Weather, weather…” Looking for the app—there it was. Tap. “Weather.” She scrolled her favorite saved places. “It seems rather hot everywhere.” Still scrolling: “Ah, Portland, Maine. Sixty degrees. Mm, lobster rolls for dinner.”
“It’ll take forever to get you to the airport in this traffic. You’ll be lucky to get up there by nine.”
“Plenty of time. I’ll call ahead from the plane. They’ll stay open for me. And if you decide you want the car, Sinky—or one in red—let Malcolm the salesman know.”
David smiled, thinking perhaps the real reason Minna was worried about heaven was wondering how it could possibly compete with her life on earth.