1st Place, 2016:
“One Last Request” © Hilary Hattenbach, Los Angeles, CA
Abe and I struggled to push Marty off the golf cart. At 86 years old, Marty wasn’t a big guy. He was like a stubbed out cigarette, short, wrinkled and used up. But now that rigor mortis had set in, he might as well have been wearing a cement hat and matching loafers.
Getting in the cart was easy. We paid $100 to Gerry Garcia, the nurse with the Desi Arnaz haircut. He shoved Marty into a sleeping bag and strapped him in with bungee cords.
“If you get caught, I deny everything,” he said.
Earlier, we were all playing poker in Marty’s apartment at Sunshine Haven Retirement Home. One minute, Marty had a crooked grin on his face and the next, it was like he got shot with a ray gun. An eerie silence came over the guy. His eyelids flapped and he collapsed, face first onto his tuna sandwich. It wasn’t the only death I’d witnessed at Sunshine Haven but it was the first time it happened to a good friend.
Now, here we were at his favorite fishing hole in the Everglades National Park, to fulfill a promise. The three of us had visited this spot last month.
Marty said, “Do me a favor. When I die, bring me here and feed me to the alligators. That’ll make me happy.”
We didn’t tell a soul except Gerry and snuck Marty out in the wee hours. If anyone asked, we’d say he moved to the Dominican Republic.
The air was thick with the smell of marsh, like a wet beach towel left in the trunk of a car overnight.
“I can’t believe you talked me into this, Stan,” Abe whispered. He’d insisted on wearing a pink golf shirt with an Everglades Golf Club cap, to try and blend in.
Swamp water lapped against the river bank and a swarm of mosquitoes buzzed near my cheek. I couldn’t see much except the half moon in the 2 AM sky.
“I’m just glad he died in October. At least it’s breezy out here.”
Abe let out a rickety cough, followed by the whistle of his inhaler.
“Looks like we murdered him.”
“Obviously. But can the cops really fault us for making a friend’s dream come true?” I used my cane to push the top of the sleeping bag. Abe pulled from the bottom. His medical ID bracelet clanked against the gold, knotted chain he always wore around his wrist. “For Christ’s sake, Abe. You sound like tambourine player.”
“It’s my tinnitus. I can’t hear it.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Maybe we should give up and go back,” Abe said.
“I’m not letting Marty down.” I whacked the bag hard. It slid off the seat, making a thud against the dirt.
“How do we get him in the water? I can’t lift him. I’ve got stenosis,” Abe said.
“Oh, you have stenosis? You’ve only mentioned it 200 times.” I shook my head. “We have to roll him, like a burrito.”
It took a while but by kicking the bag along, we got the bag to the water’s edge. Abe huffed and sat down to catch his breath. When I turned to check on him, I saw a police cruiser’s flashing lights approaching.
Abe spotted the fuzz and took two hits off his inhaler. “Shit, I’m a wanted man,” he wheezed. “I used to rob banks. I can’t get caught.”
“What?” This required a longer conversation than we had time for. “Leave it to me.”
I squatted in the dirt and had to think fast. “Marty, there’s no time for a eulogy. Vaya con Dios, brother.” I kicked the bag and it flopped into the water. The surface rippled as the alligators dragged our friend deep into the swamp.
“You all right, sir?” The cop’s flashlight shined in my face.
Abe stood behind me, sucking on his inhaler.
“Keep it down, soldier. We’re surrounded. You trying to get us killed?” I said.
“Sir, I think you’re confused. Stan Goldberg, right? Sunshine Haven reported that you, Abe Peterson here and Marty Kleinman were missing. Where’s Marty?”
“Soldier, are you here on a rescue mission or not? We’ve been stuck in this jungle for months. I’ve got malaria.”
The cop pointed his light at Abe, who shrugged and said, “He’s been like this all night.”
“Okay, Mister Goldberg. I’ll get you home safe,” the cop said.
I faced the swamp and waved. “So long, pal. See you on the other side.”
The cop didn’t even think twice about it.