Cherry Cherry Cherry
Hard candies were popping into his wife's mouth and Stanley Freedman didn't know what to do about it. The candies were coming from somewhere deep inside her body, Barb said with wonder. When they flooded her mouth with sugar, she knew it was time to play the slot machines.
“I feel like a cosmic Pez dispenser,” Barb had told Stanley when she won her first jackpot a few hours after they embarked on their four-day cruise to Mexico. But the candies that shot up her throat weren’t dusty rectangles, she insisted--they were fruit-shaped and smooth against her palate, their flavors bright and true.
“Here comes a lemon head!” Barb grabbed Stanley’s arm while they stood in line at the midnight buffet their second night at sea. She left her tray full of roast beef and cheddar cubes on the chrome bars of the queue and raced off to the ship’s casino.
Stanley picked up her tray in one hand and his in the other as he watched her disappear down the crowded hallway. Woozy with the motion of the waves, he threaded his way across the dining room. Utensils scudded off his napkin. Oily spirals of pasta salad flopped up onto his shirt. Once Stanley settled into a booth, his wife’s choice of meat sat across the table from him like a big silent tongue.
When Barb returned to the table, Stanley was half-asleep, his head tipped back against the green booth. His plate was empty except for a few pimento shreds. Barb sat down across from him; he drowsily watched her pick at her cheese cubes, slightly sweaty on the plate, their edges forming a stiff rind. Then she lifted her ice bucket full of quarters and shook it in Stanley’s face.
“What?” Stanley’s head snapped sideways. A line of drool swung out and slopped against his cheek.
“$533.25!” She reached across the table with a napkin.
Stanley blinked at his wife as she wiped his face. Her irises jiggled in her eyes, as if they had just finished spinning.
“Lemon lemon lemon!” She swung her fork triumphantly, then ripped off a clammy chunk of roast beef with her teeth.
Back in the cabin, Stanley, still half-asleep, laid his head on the pillow mint. It squished through the foil and smeared chocolate into his hair.
“Dag nabit!” Stanley sat up and peeled the wrapper from his head.
“Oh, you,” Barb said, poised to slather her face with cold cream. “Come here, my chocolate-coated husband. Come here to your mouth-of-fruit wife.”
Barb led Stanley to the tiny bathroom and wet a wash cloth in the sink. She dabbed it against his sticky hair and kissed the top of his left ear.
“You know, Barbie,” he said, more awake now, “We haven’t celebrated our anniversary in full Freedman style, yet.”
“Well, well, my man Stan,” she smiled and kissed his other ear. “I do believe you’re right.”
“That’s why the kids sent us on this cruise,” Stanley swiveled his head to kiss her on the lips. “Forty years is nothing to sneeze at.”
“Ah flipping choo,” Barb gave him a big kiss back
“I like it when you talk dirty,” Stanley pulled his golf shirt up over his head and smashed his face into hers.
Just as he started to dip his hand into the nylon swoop of her nightgown, Barb pulled away.
“Cherry drop!” she shouted. The damp washcloth fell from her hand. She ran out of the bathroom, and threw a sweater over her peignoir.
“Aw, Barb,” Stanley said.
“Cherry cherry cherry is big money!” Barb grabbed her purse and her card key from the counter. “The flavor’s strong as cough syrup!”
“My tongue was right there,” Stanley called after her, “I only tasted roast beef!”
But Barb was already out the door.
Cherry Bar Cherry. Cherry Seven Bar. Lemon Blank Cherry. Lemon Cherry Bar.
Stanley wiped the rest of the chocolate from his hair and looked at his watch. 2:47 am. The ship was supposed to pull into Ensenada some time during the night. He and Barb had to be on the dock by 7 for their bus tour. They had chosen the La Bufadora package, the tour that led to a blow hole in the mountains. Stanley had set aside a whole roll of film just for the spray.
Seven Seven Cherry. Blank Cherry Bar. Bar Lemon Seven. Lemon Lemon Bar.
I’ll just go by myself, he thought. Let Miss Fruit Mouth sleep through the whole grand Mexican adventure, if that’s how she wants it. Stanley looked at himself in the mirror—his graying tangle of chest hair, the age spots pushing their way up underneath. He sucked his stomach in, then let it plop back out. Barb used to rub her lips all over his chest, he remembered. She used to stick her tongue right in his belly button.
This was supposed to be a romantic vacation. Stanley wondered if it made any sense to be jealous of candy—imaginary candy, at that. It had more access to his wife’s mouth than he did. Stanley couldn’t figure the whole crazy thing out. Other than an occasional Bingo Night at the community center, Barb had never gambled before, and even then, she usually just helped out at the refreshment counter. Stanley sucked his stomach in one more time. Must be the change of life, he thought as he rubbed the back of his head dry. Barb had gone through menopause a decade ago, but Stanley found hormones infinitely mysterious.
Cherry Seven Lemon. Cherry Bar Blank. Lemon Lemon Seven. Bar Cherry Blank.
Their first night on the ship, Barb and Stanley had raced through the unplugged casino in their orange life vests to get to the required safety demonstration. Stanley had suffered a bout of constipation, and they were running late. As they passed the dead slot machines, Barb paused and said “Hold on! I feel like a big old gob stopper just popped into my mouth!”
“Must be the air freshener,” Stanley said. The room had a cloyingly sweet scent, as if someone had poured daiquiris all over the busy carpet.
“No, it’s like there’s an actual candy in there,” Barb told him. “Citrus flavored. I’m tingling all over. Look!”
She opened her mouth. Stanley couldn’t see anything strange inside but her uvula.
On the deck, a young man with a British accent was setting everyone into lifeboat groups. Because they arrived late, Barb and Stanley were assigned to different rows—Stanley with a Japanese couple and their baby, dwarfed in its life vest; Barb with three fraternity boys, chests puffed beneath their floatation devices. If they had to bail ship, thought Stanley, Barb would learn all the new drinking songs. He would figure out how to eat sushi, fresh from the ocean. When they reached land, they wouldn’t know each other.
Stay calm, seagoers, the man said to the rustling crowd, this is only a drill. We just want you to be prepared for the unlikely, and I repeat, highly unlikely, event of an emergency. We just want you to be prepared.
Stanley wondered what sort of advice the Brit would have for him now. How do you prepare for the unlikely event of a wife who thinks she’s coughing up lucky charms?
Cherry Cherry Cherry. Cherry Cherry Cherry. Cherry Cherry Cherry. Blank Blank Blank.
Stanley was about to climb into bed again when a horrible grinding sound rumbled up from the belly of the ship. The whole cabin shuddered, as if the keel had smashed into rocks. An emergency bell blared. Stanley watched his eyeglass case hop across the nightstand, and fleetingly wondered if he caused something awful to happen by thinking about the safety lecture. I’m as crazy as Barb, he thought, hands shaking.
Stanley pulled an orange vest from beneath the bunk and jammed his bare arms through the holes. There’s no way in hell we’re going to end up in different rows this time, not for the real thing, he vowed as he grabbed Barb’s vest, too. He stepped one foot into the relatively quiet hallway before he realized the bell was coming from his cabin phone.
Blank Blank Blank. Blank Blank Blank. Blank Blank Blank Blank Blank Blank Blank.
“Hello?” Stanley answered, heart in hyper-thrum.
“Mr. Freedman, this is Captain Benjamin,” the man said.
“Yes?” Stanley repeated, confused. The captain wouldn’t take the time to phone every guest if the ship was going down, would he? “Is there a problem?”
“Sir, your wife has had an episode.”
“What?” Stanley’s knees and stomach suddenly felt like they did when the ship slammed into a wave. “What are you talking about?”
“Does Mrs. Freedman have a history of epilepsy, Sir?”
“My wife’s as healthy as an ox!” Stanley shouted. “Where is she? What have you done with her?”
“She’s in the casino, Mr. Freedman. The ship’s doctor is taking a look at her right now.”
“Tell her I’ll be right there!” Stanley hung up and raced out of the room.
Metal clanked and churned under Stanley’s feet as he ran down the narrow hall, touching his palms against the walls to steady himself. It occurred to him the anchor must be dropping. They must be in Mexico, he thought, a fact that made finding Barb seem all the more urgent. She might try to drink the water. She might try to eat raw fruit.
The halls were endless. The route he and Barb normally took through the dining room was closed. Stanley got disoriented. He rushed past the childcare room full of slaphappy kids up way past their bedtimes, past the dark gift shop and beauty salon, past the portrait gallery. He burst outside, hair streaming as he skirted the nearly empty swimming pool, the kissing couples, Barb’s life boat fraternity boys retching over the guard rails. He blasted back inside and stumbled into a stair well. The casino was somewhere near the top of the ship, he remembered. He started to climb.
A woman in a spangly cocktail dress tried to pass Stanley on her way down the steps. Stanley lost his balance and listed to the right, wedging her between himself and the cloth-covered wall.
“Jumping ship?” she laughed uneasily and patted his orange life vest. Her breath smelled like pineapple.
Stanley looked down at the floatation device hanging open on his bare chest. He had completely forgotten about putting it on.
“Please forgive me, Ma’am,” he grabbed her arm, wild eyed. “I don’t know what I’m doing. My wife is in peril!”
The woman yanked herself away from his grasp and bolted down the stairs. Glittery bits of her dress clung to the nubby wall like sugar. Stanley tried to catch his breath; he pressed his finger against one sparkling crumb until it fused with the whorl of his fingertip. He watched the woman’s pearly nails grow smaller and smaller, chips of light twirling down the banister.
Stanley dragged himself up the rest of the steps. He pushed through the doors of the casino so forcefully he almost fell over. The room was an assault.
“I’m looking for my wife!” Stanley called out above all the sirens and bells, squinting at the smoke and flashing lights. He couldn’t see any sign of Barb. “My wife has had an episode!”
Stanley staggered across the room. People turned their heads and glowered as he lurched past.
A man in uniform walked up to Stanley.
“Mr. Freedman?” he asked.
Hearing his name, Stanley felt a bit more anchored to himself.
“Yes?” He stood up taller, cleared his throat, straightened his life vest.
“I was told to keep an eye out for you. Good thing we had some photo identification. We moved your wife to the infirmary, Mr. Freedman.”
Stanley noticed the man was holding a 5 x 7 print of Barb and Stanley, taken their first night on ship. A man dressed like a pirate had snuck up on all the guests in the dining room, a photographer in tow to catch their reaction. People could buy pictures of the ambush for 10 bucks a pop the next day. The pirate held a knife to Stanley’s throat. Stanley’s eyes were rolled up in annoyance; he had already seen the pirate creep up to other tables. Barb’s head was tipped back in laughter, her mouth open wide, all her fillings showing.
“How is she?” Stanley tried not to tremble. “Did she buy that picture? I told her it was a waste of money...”
“You’ll have to talk to the doctor, Sir,” the man escorted Stanley down the hall.
The infirmary smelled like margarita mix and rubbing alcohol. Stanley felt queasy; a doctor pulled him aside.
“Your wife has had some sort of seizure, Mr. Freedman,” he told Stanley. “Possibly a stroke. I’ve made arrangements for a Medivac.”
Stanley imagined a vacuum cleaner sucking all the fruit candies out of Barb’s throat before he remembered a Medivac was a helicopter.
“She’ll need an MRI, a CT scan,” said the doctor. “We thought it would be best if you went back to the states. There’s an excellent hospital in Ensenada, but we thought you and Mrs. Freedman would be more comfortable where there’s no language barrier.”
“Where is she?” Stanley grabbed a bag of cotton balls and crushed it to his chest.
“She bit her tongue quite badly during the episode. It may require a stitch. At least she didn’t swallow it—people sometimes do in the throes of a grand mal.”
Stanley swallowed hard. His Adam’s apple felt about as big as a papaya.
“Where is my wife?” Stanley dug his nails into the plastic bag. A few cotton balls tumbled out like cartoon clods of snow.
“Please keep your voice down, sir,” the doctor said. “She’s sleeping in the next room.”
A security guard burst through the infirmary door.
“I was told I’d find you here,” he pointed at Stanley accusingly.
“Is there some sort of problem, Officer?” the doctor asked.
“We had a call about this guy in a life vest. Some woman said he pushed her up against a wall. Said he was gonna do something to his wife.”
“What?!” Stanley tossed the cotton ball bag in disbelief. It glanced off the security guard’s stomach.
“I’m warning you, Sir,” the guard touched his holster.
“I was just trying to get to my wife!” Stanley yelled. “My wife had an episode!”
“His wife is very ill, Officer,” said the doctor. “He’s distraught.”
“Can I see my wife, please?!” demanded Stanley. “It’s our fortieth anniversary! Can I please see my flipping wife?!”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to accompany you, Sir,” said the security guard.
“Fine!” Stanley shouted. “Invite the whole crew! Let’s have a goddamn party!”
“Sir, your voice,” the doctor reminded him.
“My wife!” Stanley’s knees buckled. He sat down on the floor.
“This way, Sir,” the doctor helped Stanley back on his feet and let him to the darkened inner room. Two buckets of coins gleamed from a chair by the wall. Stanley could barely make out a lumpy shape on the cot.
“Barbie?” Stanley knelt beside the bed. He reached out and touched her hair, crackly with Aqua Net. When he pulled his hand away, the stairway woman’s dress-glitter winked from one of Barb’s split ends.
“Thtanley?” Barb sounded like her tongue was too big for her mouth. “I hit the dthackpot. Three timeth in a row.”
“Well, that should cover about a thousandth of your hospital bill,” Stanley kissed her forehead over and over.
“Hothpital?” Barb’s voice was thick and sleepy.
“We’re flying you to St. Mary’s, Mrs. Freedman, in Long Beach,” the doctor turned the dimmer light up a couple of notches. “You’ll need some tests.”
“They think you might have had a stroke, Barbie,” Stan’s tears began in earnest as he kissed her cheek.
“A thtroke of luck, thath what I had.” Barb’s chin was crusted with blood.
Stanley realized Barb was still in her nightgown and slippers. Her cardigan lay crumpled on the ground. He picked it up and draped over her thighs.
“Why are you in a life vetht, Thtanny?” Barb lightly combed her fingers through Stanley’s chest hair, trailed them down his belly, back onto the bed.
“I dropped yours, somewhere,” Stanley sobbed. “I don’t know where it is. I was coming to get you. I wanted us to be on the same boat. I wanted us to die together!”
“Mr. Freedman,” the security officer pulled a set of handcuffs from his belt. “I must warn you that everything you say can and will be held against you.”
If anything was going to be held against him, Stanley thought, it had to be Barb. Stanley wrapped his arms around Barb’s solid hips, buried his face in her slippery nightgown.
Barb’s body suddenly bucked. Stanley pulled away. His wife’s head jerked back like it had in the pirate picture, and she shook like she was laughing, but her irises rolled out of sight. A strangled sound issued from her throat. Stanley couldn’t stand to look, but he couldn’t turn away. He focused on Barb’s mouth, her mouth alone, as it twisted open, then clamped violently shut. He watched the doctor pry her teeth apart with gloved fingers and hold onto her tongue. Three beads of blood rose to the surface there, bright and red and perfectly formed, like small cherry candies.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She teaches in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor and Writer in Residence at Sierra Nevada College.