Wilhelmina, whom everyone called Billy, hadn't reached the ripe old age of eighty-one by flirting with death. She sat in the front passenger seat of a black Bronco, securely seat-belted and shoulder-harnessed as her son, Gerald, drove slowly to the restaurant. She herself had suggested this model to her son because of its front and side airbags, computer-assisted brakes, and excellent crash-survival rating. It was a tank in car's clothing.
Tonight, Billy wore a gray wool jacket and skirt, high-collared pink blouse, and her favorite pearl necklace and earrings. The plump, luminescent pearls, worn only on special occasions, complimented her tight bun of silvery hair and faded blue eyes. The special occasion: her birthday.
As Gerald carefully negotiated the busy main street, Billy stared at the pedestrians scurrying hither and yon, all wrapped up in their trivial concerns and oblivious to their own mortality. Billy knew all too well that Death stalked the land in one of His many guises, enticing the foolish, tricking the unwary, and snatching the weak.
But although she was eighty-one today, Billy was neither frivolous nor frail and was constantly on the lookout for Death. She fully intended to celebrate a hundred birthdays or more, and meet Death when she was good and ready. And not a moment before.
Billy glanced over at her well-dressed, fifty-five-year-old son, who knew better than to look back while driving. Gerald's face was round and innocent, with her delicate features and his father's dark eyes. He ran his own construction company, had designed and built the luxury condominium complex he lived in, and was a vitamin and fitness fanatic. He'd never married but perhaps that was just as well, she thought, what with the AIDS epidemic and the way girls are today.
Billy felt a sharp, squeezing pain in her chest, but it quickly subsided as Gerald braked and turned into the parking lot of her favorite restaurant, Le Chateau Noir.
Soon Billy was standing at the reservation desk, taking shallow breaths of the potentially virus-laden air while Gerald conferred with Francois, the maitre d'. When Billy'd had Francois as a student in the second grade, his name was Ralph, Ralph Dobranski. She recalled young Ralph as a dull child, a pupil of limited intellect with an unfortunate tendency to pick his nose.
"Good to see you, Francois," said Gerald, handshaking a twenty into the maitre d's palm and lowering his voice. "Listen, Mother's been a little antsy lately, particularly around crowds of people. It's her birthday and I really want her to enjoy herself. What can you do for us?"
Francois nervously brushed back his black, pomaded hair, as if he'd just been asked to perform impromptu brain surgery, and said, "I can poot you in zee small alcove in zee back. By zee fireplace. Eet's empty except for one uzzer couple, and zey're already on dessert. By zee time you start your appetizers, you'll have zee rhoom to yourself."
"Wonderful, Ra --, er, Francois," said Gerald, "and please, send us your best and nicest waiter, someone who'll make Mother feel special." Gerald slipped the maitre d' another twenty.
"You got it, Jerry, babe," whispered Francois, and raising his voice, he said, "Walk theese way, Madame and Monsieur." With menus and a wine list tucked under his arm, the mincing maitre d' led Billy and her son through the crowded main dining room, past a smaller, less-noisy back room, and into a cozy little alcove.
Strains of La Boheme filtered through the low-vaulted room which was lit by small wall sconces and was unoccupied, as promised, save for one other couple. In a vase in the center of their table was a single Calais lily, one of Billy's favorite blooms, surrounded by fine bone china and gleaming gold dinnerware.
Gerald held his mother's chair as she sat down, then he pushed her close to the table. As her son was taking his seat, Billy felt a tightness beneath her sternum, like a gathering burp, but it left as quickly as it came. She'd had the occasional odd ripple in her chest for some time now, but lately her symptoms had increased both in frequency and severity.
After handing out the menus, Francois proffered a crisp "Bon appetit!" spun around theatrically, and made his exit.
The crackling blaze in the nearby fireplace helped assuage Billy's irritation at having to listen to opera and share the room with strangers. Although she'd rather have an extraction than listen to opera -- and wished the other couple would simply disappear -- Billy did like a nice fire.
She gazed across the table at her son and thought, what a good boy: generous, caring, and solicitous of his mother. His father had loved parties, wine, and dancing, and always laughed too loud. His carefree attitude and disregard for the speed limit had cost him his life when Gerald was only three. Billy was left to raise the boy by herself, on a teacher's salary no less, but though it wasn't easy, she'd never wavered in her commitment to him. When it came to protecting Gerald, Billy was a bantam Bengal tigress, fierce and sharp-tongued, and anyone who even contemplated harming her son took one look in her eyes and thought better of it.
"So what's new at work, Son?" she said.
"Well, we landed that big project in Brewster, the one I've been talking about for a while. We'll probably need to hire a few more people, maybe another engineer as well. But all in all, our company's going to have a very profitable year." Gerald rested his hand on his mother's. "Perhaps it's time to talk about moving you to a nice condo in my complex. I know you'd feel a lot safer there with the security gate and the alarm system."
Billy pulled her hand away. "No thank you, Gerald. I know you mean well but I enjoy living in my own house. And it's perfectly safe," she said with an air of finality.
"But Mother, the florist called last Monday. He said you wouldn't open the door to accept the flowers I sent, would it be O.K. to leave them on the porch. What was that all about?"
Billy leaned in and pointed a finger at her son. "You should have seen that delivery man," she huffed, "an immense, dark man with crazy hair and wild eyes. People let men like that into their homes and that's the last you ever hear of them!"
"The delivery man had wild eyes?" Gerald rolled his own. "Somehow, I doubt that, Mother. You've been worrying much too much lately, and it can't be good for you. Think about the condo, you'd have a lot less work to do and you'd be closer to me."
Their conversation was interrupted by the abrupt appearance of their waiter. "Good evening, folks, my name is Terrence." Terrence was barely five-foot tall and skinny with a modest paunch. His brown eyes twinkled beneath bushy gray eyebrows, gray with just a glimmer of the coppery hair which ringed his bald pate. "May I get you something from the bar?"
Billy only took a drink on special occasions and then, just one. She'd seen too many people leave this world with a beer in one hand and a shot of whiskey in the other. She said, "I'll have a vodka martini, dry and straight up, with an olive."
"Excellent," said the waiter, "and you, Sir?"
"I'd like a glass of Chablis, please," said Gerald.
"Very good," said Terrence, jotting down the drinks on his pad with a small, stubby pencil.
"I don't seem to recognize you, Terrence," said Billy, "Are you new here?"
"Oh no, Ma'am," he said, chuckling, "I've been around forever." He slipped the pad and pencil inside his black tuxedo jacket, said, "Be right back with your drinks," and disappeared through the doorway.
Billy took a moment to inspect the other couple in the alcove.
Facing her was a large, rough-hewn man with dark hair, deep-set eyes, and a grim expression. He chewed mechanically and without apparent enjoyment, and Billy took an instant dislike to him. Of his lady companion, all Billy saw was the back of her head.
Gerald said, "Mother, did I tell you about the ski trip?"
"Ski trip?" she said. "Why you've never skied before."
"Well, a bunch of folks from work are planning a ski-weekend at La Mort Gorge next month, and they're pushing me to go. I'm thinking about it."
"You could break your neck skiing," said Billy, getting agitated. "Do you have any idea how dangerous it is?"
"No, not really," said Gerald sheepishly, "but this one woman, Jenny, said she'd take me out on the beginners' slope and teach me how to ski. She said even if I don't like the skiing, I'll have a great time when everyone gets together at the lodge afterward."
"Who, may I ask, is this 'Jenny' person?" said Billy.
"Her name is Jenny Carlson, she started in accounting last year and we've been working closely on the Brewster project. She's very smart and very nice. Pretty too."
"That's all well and good," sniffed Billy, "but I doubt she's a certified ski instructor. The whole thing sounds much too risky to me," she said, shaking her head.
"Well don't get all worked up over it, Mother," said Gerald, "I haven't committed to anything yet."
Billy flinched when Terrence suddenly materialized, balancing a drink tray that looked far too large for him.
"For the lady," he announced, setting a martini down in front of Billy, beads of condensation clinging to the elegant glass. "And for the gentleman," he said, placing a flute of golden wine in front of Gerald. "Can I interest you folks in some appetizers?"
"Sure," said Gerald, "What do you recommend?"
"Well, tonight we have a nice selection of oysters on the half-shell, as well as a particularly rich pate fois gras."
Billy pursed her lips. "That would be fine, Terrence" she said, "if we wished to contract Hepatitis A or completely clog our coronary arteries. That not being the case, I'll have the mixed baby greens, with the balsamic vinegarette on the side."
"Make that two," said Gerald glumly. Terrence nodded in acknowledgment and departed.
Brightening, Gerald smiled and raised his wine glass. "Cheers, Mother," he said, as they clinked glasses, "To eighty-one years, and many more to come!"
They each took a sip, peering affectionately over the tops of their glasses at each other.
Billy swallowed slowly, savoring the vodka's cold bite and the precious time spent with her boy. She allowed that this would be a perfect birthday celebration if not for the strange pangs in her chest. She would sneak one of her new pain pills at the first opportunity. Billy now ordered her medicine online from Canada. She saved a ton of money this way and having read much pharmacology, she was convinced she knew as much about drugs as her doctor. Maybe more.
As she took another sip of her drink, Billy's attention was once again drawn to the man at the other table. She was mesmerized by his large pale hands, armed with knife and fork. His fingers were long and bony, almost skeletal. Was it normal for hands to have so little flesh?
Billy jumped when Gerald asked what she was considering for her entree. Then her features contorted from a sudden crushing pain in her chest, the worst yet, and she hid her face in the menu.
In a blink, the pain had passed, and Billy pulled herself together and said, "I was thinking of . . . the Coq au Vin, or perhaps the Veal Marseilles."
Gerald chuckled. "It's not like you to be so indecisive, Mother. Perhaps you're going soft in your old age."
Still shaken, Billy feigned amusement at her son's remark and then Terrence was serving their salads. The waiter took their dinner orders and asked if they'd like more wood on the fire, almost as if he sensed the dreadful chill inside Billy.
"Why, that would be splendid," she said.
Terrence stoked the burning embers, then stacked another layer of logs, and the ensuing blaze rapidly raised the room's temperature.
"You know, Terrence," said Billy, "you're awfully good at what you do."
"Well I ought to be, Ma'am," he replied, grinning, "I've certainly been doing it long enough." The waiter bowed and then strode out of sight.
Between the blazing fire and the high-octane cocktail, Billy felt warm and toasty, and much less tense. A pain pill just to be on the safe side, she thought, and I'll be right as rain. As she was dressing her salad, Gerald announced, "I need to use the little boy's room, Mother."
He stood up, straightened his tie and buttoned his jacket. "Will you be all right without me?"
"Somehow, I'll manage," said Billy.
Gerald grinned and left.
Billy rooted through her pocketbook for her pain medicine and quickly found it, but her swollen, arthritic fingers fumbled trying to open the child-proof cap. Wondering whose bright idea it had been to make pill bottles so infernally hard to open, she used her dinner napkin to grip the container and unscrew the top. She placed the tiny gray pill on her tongue and washed it down with a gulp of water. As she mentally reviewed the drug's potential side effects, a shadow fell upon the table.
The other couple had gotten up from their table and now the man loomed over her, impossibly tall. She looked up at his face, lit from below by the flickering fire, and gasped at his gaunt cheeks, sunken eyes, and high pale forehead. A dagger of pain burrowed into her left shoulder but she stifled her cry, as if her very life depended on it.
Is that Him? she wondered, unable to take her eyes off the terrible towering man. Has He come for me?
Helping his companion with her coat, the man noticed Billy staring and briefly met her gaze.
Leave me alone, thought Billy, almost saying it aloud, I'm not ready -- not tonight!
As the imposing stranger pulled on his long, black overcoat, the woman went on ahead, leaving Billy alone with him in the small room. Her heart hammered wildly as the man finished buttoning his coat and headed for the exit. He was almost out the door when he stopped and looked back at Billy, freezing her in mid-exhale.
"Have a good night, Ma'am," he said pleasantly, and then he was gone.
When Gerald returned a few minutes later, Billy was hugging herself and shivering visibly.
"Mother, what's wrong?" said Gerald, leaning down and putting his arm around her shoulders.
"Oh . . . nothing, really," she said, her son's touch soothing her. "It was just that awful man at the other table, he frightened me. I mean, I don't know that he's awful, he was just . . . so emaciated, so bony, I mean . . . I don't know what I mean."
Billy took a deep breath to compose herself, a maneuver she'd performed thousands of times as a second-grade teacher. She willed herself to stop shivering and took a swig of her martini, anxious to erase the tall stranger's image. "I just haven't been myself lately, that's all, but I'm better now."
"Good, I'm glad," said Gerald reassuringly. He took his seat but held Billy's hand from across the table. "You're going to be just fine, Mother. But let's call Dr. Stein tomorrow and have him take a look at you, just to be on the safe side."
"Oh, those doctors!" she protested, "all they want to do is a lot of unnecessary tests and procedures."
"But Mother, you've known Dr. Stein for years, since when don't you trust him? What's really worrying you?"
"It's just that doctors today are too quick to put you under, too eager to cut you open," said Billy. "Take my friend, Martha. She was far too trusting of doctors. They put her to sleep for toe surgery -- toe surgery! -- and she never woke up. That's not going to happen to me."
Gerald sighed. "Mother, let's simply hear what Dr. Stein has to say. I'll be with you the entire time, and I assure you nothing will be done unless you agree to it." He glanced over at the dancing flames in the fireplace, the smoke spiraling up the chimney.
"Do you remember the summer when I had the mumps?" he said. "You stayed with me all day long, putting wet compresses on my forehead and changing my sweat-soaked sheets and pajamas. You fed me chicken soup and chocolate ice cream, and you bought me all the comic books I could want: Superman, Batman, and the Flash."
"Yes, I remember," said Billy ruefully. "And I could barely sleep at night, thinking you might try to fly off the roof like Superman."
Gerald smiled and took a sip of his wine. "I distinctly recall you saying, 'Don't worry, Son, I'm here and everything's going to be all right.' Well now, that's just what I'm telling you, Mother. So let's try to relax a little and enjoy our dinner."
With impeccable timing, Terrence arrived bearing their entrees.
"Were the baby greens not satisfactory?" he asked Billy, a moue of concern on his face as he set her dinner down next to her untouched salad.
Thanks to the trans-global synergy of the Russian vodka and the Canadian codeine, Billy was at present feeling no pain. She smiled at the charming little waiter.
"No, Terrence, they're fine. I'm just taking my time," she said, slurring ever so slightly. "It is my eighty-first birthday after all, and I want to savor every minute of it."
"Well in that case, Ma'am, enjoy your meal. And when I return" -- he smiled mischievously -- "I'll be bringing a little surprise for the birthday girl!"
Billy watched her server as he strode out of the room, cracking up at how short and bow-legged he was. Terrence would have made a fine leprechaun, she thought and giggled under her breath.
Billy could smell the delectable lemon-butter sauce on her mushroom-festooned chicken but found she had no appetite, none at all. She was reaching for her martini when Gerald's cell phone went off, a harsh honking noise more annoying than opera as far as Billy was concerned.
"Hello? . . . yes, hello? . . . can you hear me?" he said, making a face. He checked the phone number on the display.
"Darn it, Mother, it's the office," he said, "and the reception's no good in here."
"Go out-shide and take the call, darling," said Billy, grinning crookedly. "I'm f-i-n-e, now, really."
Gerald raised an eyebrow, perhaps questioning the veracity of that statement. "O.K.," he said begrudgingly, "But I'll ask Terrence to keep an eye on you and I'll be back in a jiffy."
He stood, kissed his mom on the forehead, and hurried outside.
* * *
Billy was surprised to find Terrence standing right beside her, a fresh martini on his oversized tray. She looked at him quizzically as he took away her empty glass and replaced it with a full one.
"It's all right to have two, it's your birthday," he said, his brown eyes smiling. "Besides, I made it myself."
"Why thank you, Terrence," said Billy, touched. She truly enjoyed the little man's company, he had a calm, friendly way about him. Not only did the room seem warmer and more cheerful than before, Billy felt like she hadn't a care in the world, for the first time since . . . who knows when? She sipped her drink and said, "Terrence, you've made this night one I won't soon forget."
"Well, I love my work, always have," said the waiter. "Life can be scary and stressful, especially for the elderly. But I like to think that I take a difficult situation and make it better, take some of the fear and anxiety out of it. In my own little way, of course," he said, blushing modestly.
"You also make a mean martini," said Billy, her ancient face radiant in the fire's glow. "But I wonder what's keeping Gerald? He said he'd be back in a minute."
Billy noticed "Begin the Beguine," one of her favorite Cole Porter tunes, was playing now instead of that dreadful opera.
"Why, they're playing Cole Porter," she gushed. "I love Cole Porter!"
"Yes, I know," said Terrence. "I had them put it on especially for you." The waiter now had a frosty mug of beer in his hand and he sat down across the table from Billy. "As for Gerald, well . . . I'm afraid he won't be rejoining us."
"Why not?" cried Billy, "What's happened to my son?"
"Oh, nothing's happened to your son, Wilhelmina," said Terrence, squeezing her hand. "He's just fine. Or at least he will be after a while, with Jenny's help."
Mouth agape, Billy stared at the tiny waiter.
"Y-you said my name," she stammered. "How do you know my name?"
"I know everyone's name, it's a prerequisite for the job."
A log popped in the fireplace sending sparks rising upwards with the smoke. Billy opened and closed her mouth a few times, but not a sound came out. Finally, she whispered, "You're Him, aren't you?"
"You're not what I expected," she said.
"I'm different for everybody, Billy, according to their needs," said the little man, sipping his beer. "Where the image of the big black-robed skeleton waving a scythe came from, I've no idea." Terrence chuckled. "Some people have too much imagination for their own good."
Billy grasped her martini glass: it was cold, it was wet, it had heft. "Will it be horrible, this dying?" she asked, "will it be terribly painful?"
"Oh no, Billy, not at all," said Terrence, patting her hand.
"You see, death is the end of worry and pain. There are no loud explosions, no cold wailing winds, no bright lights to follow. It's more of a gentle letting-go."
"And besides," he said kindly, "It's already happened."
Billy looked across the room and saw her body slumped over a table. Her head was resting on her hands, her blue eyes closed forever, and except for the broken flower vase, it was a tranquil scene: just an old bird taking a nap. Her hair was perfect, Billy noted with some satisfaction.
"So take your time, Billy, enjoy your martini," said Terrence. "Have another if you like. And when you're ready, I'll take you to a truly wonderful place."
Billy sat there stunned as "All Through the Night" began to play. She remembered when this song had been all the rage, and a tear trickled down her cheek. "When dawn comes to waken me, you're never there at all . . . " crooned the female singer.
"When I was young and in love, Terrence, my husband and I used to dance to this song. He was quite the dancer," she said, smiling. "He would sneak in little kisses on my neck and whisper things that made me laugh. He made everything bright and exciting,"
Billy took a sip of her drink -- it was crisp and exhilarating, the best martini she'd ever had.
"Terrence, I'd like to ask you a favor," said Billy, looking over at the kind, sweet man. "Would you dance with me?"
"Of course, Billy," said Death, hopping to His feet and gallantly offering His arm. "I just love to dance!"