Ebilene checked her e-mail for the third time that morning, but she had still received no response from the Crown Prince of Nigeria. Sure, the birds were singing their songs out to the sky — a pleasure that at her age eclipsed most others. Sure, the sun busily banished gray clouds from the sky. Sure, the buzzing proximity of her Hundredth Birthday Bash should have been enough to keep her heart chirping happily away in harmony with the whippoorwill at her birdfeeder. But the sudden territory annexed in her attention by a personal plea for help, shot halfway around the world in a tube called the Internet, by a man with such a story that the whole world should have cocked its ear, interrupted the small intentions she had of buying the flowers herself, of taping up some purple streamers, of shaving some Scharffenberger over her black forest cake. Who shaves Scharffenberger over cake, she thought, when a deposed African monarch has requested your individual assistance?
She did what she could to cast thoughts of the money from her mind, and had decided that the most prudent thing to say would be: “half would be plenty.” A large enough chunk of his offer not to be insulting, but enough of it forsaken that she wouldn’t spend what could be her last years feeling like a miser. Besides, half of ten percent of thirteen billion dollars would be, she estimated, more than enough to get Shirley something nice for Christmas and hire someone to install some leafless rain gutters, so that Harold wouldn’t have to clean them out twice a year.
He — Olatunde Okoli, that is — had, like most desperate men, resorted to offering what he felt would appeal to darker side of human motivation. A good heart, weighted but unsullied by the tragedy that had befallen him — his father killed, his nation’s stewardship stolen from him by a nefarious general — but still a good heart, shone through the money talk that littered his e-mail, and invoked the unbreakable empathy for which Ebilene Wheatley was known. Along with her friends, her family, the Audubon Society, and Youngstown State University, he would exist ever after under the fierce watchtower of her protectorate, whether he liked it or not.
But she had responded to his e-mail the previous afternoon, not a minute after she’d finished reading it, and she had wired all the emergency funds he’d said he would need, the eleven hundred dollars for airfare, the eight hundred to facilitate the transfer of his country’s treasury to a US bank — she’d even sent along an extra hundred and fifty dollars, with a note to use “to grease the wheels of industry as needed, and/or buy yourself some snacks at the airport.” That a fresh e-mail had yet to manifest in her inbox could only be attributed to trouble en route out of a country in turmoil. Perhaps the funds were insufficient. Perhaps he’d been apprehended. He could be pickling in any number of nasty mason jars by now.
The phone’s bringaling interrupted her worries about Olatunde and then fused with them. A call from him, it could be, or a call saying his head was on a pike in Abuja, thanks for playing. But it was only Shirley, who in her capacity as best friend forever was enough to shake off the distraction of the Prince’s mortal peril, at least for a bit.
“T-minus-fourteen hours, twelve minutes, and twenty-four seconds!” Shirley shrieked.’
“Should I make the potato salad without bacon,” Ebilene asked, “for Harold’s sake?”
“Potato salad? Half a day away from triple digits and you’re worried about potato salad.?”
“Triple digits,” Ebilene sighed. “Most beautiful three words in the language.”
“Hide your Playgirls,” Shirley said. “I’m coming over!”
Ebilene still needed raspberries, whipping cream, and tarragon to complete a few of the various dishes that would crowd her buffet table out back that night, so she put on her walking shoes and headed down to market. Shirley’s pink Cadillac, an impulse buy during the height of her Springsteen fetish, was parked slantways and overwhelming Ebilene’s driveway by the time she got home, and Shirley had pulled a dozen assorted platters, bowls, and molds of pre-prepared party dishes onto the counter to stick her fingers in for a taste. Ebiline frantically slapped Shirley’s hands away, giggling like a kid.
“I called Harold,” Shirley said. “To mow the back lawn.”
“He just mowed it Saturday.”
“It’s his mother’s hundredth. He’d cut it with scissors if you asked him.”
Ebilene looked in the fridge and saw that Shirley had stuck another wax candle on the cake, so it read 1000 instead of 100. “Very funny,” Ebilene said. “You’re only six years behind, so I guess that makes you nine hundred ninety-four.”
Ebilene wanted to tell Shirley that a strange feeling had come over her the past few days, that the excitement had not left but had been tempered into something that felt like resignation, that one hundred felt less like triumphing over time than like suddenly realizing you were lost in the desert of it, every direction offering only the same sandy vistas. But she didn’t know where to begin, so she said: “I’ve started feeling funny about it.”
“Don’t know why you just started now,” Shirley said.
Ebilene went to the bank. The transfers had gone through. She didn’t want to go home, where Harold would be mowing the lawn and Shirley would be gobbling like a turkey for attention. At the library she checked out a book titled The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Funny to think her own history was double that. Independence was not so great, she thought, and interdependence highly underrated. The librarian let her use the phone to call the top of the church phone tree, to send a reminder out through the ranks. A midnight party was a gamble with the congregation, considering that half had trouble staying awake through a ten a.m. service, but it was her hundredth, an occasion that came less than once in the average lifetime.
“Make sure to tell them,” Ebilene said to the top of the phone tree, “if they don’t come I’ll be overwhelmed with leftovers.”
She unplugged her computer. It was four nineteen p.m. There was no word from Okoli and she thought she might worry less with it unplugged. For her ninetieth birthday Shirley had given her a chocolate fondue fountain — how often did they think she ate chocolate fondue? — so Ebilene pulled it from its box in the garage and ran a feather duster over it. Harold had rented four park benches and arranged them in two rows facing each other, like the seats of a subway car recreated in her back yard. He’d also brought a beautiful patterned table cloth that looked like it might have come from a pharaoh’s tomb and draped it over the buffet table.
“Last day under the century mark,” he said, giving his mother a hug. “How does it feel?”
Harold was sixty-six now, but his diet of tennis and daily saunas kept him looking like a brisk fifty. He could have retired six years ago and traveled all over the world, Ebilene thought, but he too much enjoyed the dignified thrill of being able to call himself a judge. One year he’d taken her on a trip to a restaurant in Napa and hadn’t let her look at the bill. The food indeed was something she hadn’t known food could be, though she hadn’t told him their desserts were, in her humble opinion, baked with less love than her own.
“It feels fine,” she said.
“That’s not a ringing endorsement.”
“Ebilene’s got cold feet,” Shirley chirped. “She’s thinking about not going through with it.”
“Oh, hush,” Ebilene said.
“You’re worried about people coming,” Harold said.
“That’s not it.”
“These benches will be full and we’ll be pulling your couches outside.”
Harold said he had an order to pick up from the florist and did she need anything else? As he walked out the drive she saw him dialing on his cell phone, calling in reinforcements, no doubt. Shirley was calling for her help in the kitchen.
“Ninety-four years and I still can’t make a meringue.”
Ebilene whipped the egg whites and passed the bowl back to Shirley.
“Whatever you’re feeling,” Shirley said, a bit less chipper now, “it can’t be the worst you’ve ever felt.”
Of course it couldn’t be worse than the first night sleeping alone on a queen size. How could it feel worse than throwing a handful of common dirt into a hole that held her husband of sixty years, more than half of even her long life? But grief was so straightforward: you feel sad; people allow it; you wait.
At a certain age, Ebilene felt, each new birthday erased the memory of an earlier one. Turn ninety-one, lose ten. Turn ninety-four, lose thirteen. And each year was another year farther away in time from Norm, another year paddling a boat out in the ocean. It was so hard to make new friends at this age. That’s why she hoped even if Olatunde Okoli couldn’t make it to the United States, maybe he would have a computer and they could be pen pals.
In the moment she’d pictured throughout the day, someone at the party asked where she was when Caesar was assassinated, or whether she was impressed when the wheel was invented. “Oh, I’m not that old,” she imagined herself saying. “But I will say that sliced bread was my idea first.” Then she’d go on to list the things she had been around for in reverse order: the Internet, the cell phone, the computer, Nixon’s resignation, MRI Machines, a man on the moon, the Kennedy assassinations. Birth control pills, credit cards, Mr. Potato Head. “I was fifty,” she’d say, “when they made the first McDonalds.” Then she’d go into the first half of her life: penicillin, the toaster, the bra. But no one asked. They all congratulated her.
“What a milestone.” “Hanging in there.” “Don’t look a day over eighty.”
The park benches were mostly full, as it happened, of husbands from the church snoring away, their wives chattering away at the buffet table, drowning strawberries in chocolate. “Insomniacs, all of them,” said Shirley, who didn’t go to the church anymore. Eight of Harold’s law colleagues had come and they formed a circle around one of the benches, gobbling up, Ebilene was happy to see, the pies.
The church folks left after an hour, carrying the foil packets of leftovers that Ebilene foisted on them. Shirley had fallen asleep in an armchair. Harold and his friends were out back, still on the benches, drinking a bottle of port that he had brought.
Ebilene went to the floor and plugged her computer back in. There was still no response from Okoli. She Googled Nigeria. There were no news headlines about a coup. She Googled Olatunde Okoli, but nowhere on the World Wide Web did those names appear together. She read an article that said Nigeria had a president, not a king.
A neat little trick, she thought.
She Googled Harold Wheatley and found results for doctors, journalists, bloggers, and her son the judge. There was a picture of him with his arm around one of the men outside, both of them in their judge’s robes. There was a picture of him playing doubles tennis with his wife, who was in Spain this week and couldn’t make the party. An article from The Sun about a home robbery trial named the Honorable Harold Wheatley as presiding.
There were words about and pictures too of Shirley Bicks: a food bank website thanking her for her help, a movie review she wrote for the local tribune, Shirley giving a thumbs up to the camera on a hike through the California redwoods, her yearbook picture from high school. Ebilene didn’t know how it all got on there, but there it was: their lives, their likenesses, offering themselves up to her.
So where was Okoli, this man who had e-mailed her who didn’t exist, whose family didn’t exist, whose title did not exist? Did the man pretending to be Okoli look like the Okoli in her head? Had he pictured her, an old woman, host of her own lackluster party? When she searched Ebilene Wheatley her name was nowhere, not even the church registry. There were no pictures of her smiling, making some facile gesture at the camera to convey the spirit of life, as there were of Harold and Shirley and, she was sure, the other men out back, and the couples who had already left the party. Well enough, she thought, for that only ever tells half the story.