The headline – Stardust Casino Sees Last Roll of Dice – ignited a memory so startling, Grace sucked in a sharp breath.
"Bad news?" her husband asked from across the breakfast table.
Every Sunday morning they hauled their old bones out of bed extra early, ate a bowl of warm steel cut oats with raisins, downed a pot of coffee, and read the paper together before church services. Ed said it helped take his mind off the sermon he had to give.
Grace stared at the headline, unable to find her voice. I forgot about the Stardust.
At seventy-one, memory lapses beset her: leaving for the market without her grocery list, misplacing keys, walking into a room and not knowing why. Things most people, including her husband, shrugged off as normal for her age. But she knew better. Doctor Medford – when she pressed him for an answer – confirmed her heightened risk of developing dementia because of family history. He called her memory blips mild panic attacks. "You need to relax," he advised. "Worrying only compounds the problem." Relax? She was the same age her papa had been when grief stole his mind. He died a starved man, hungering to taste the lifetime of memories just out of his grasp.
But to his last breath, he remembered the Stardust and the civil rights milestone it represented. He marched through the front doors of that casino and declared, Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! Papa always did have a flair for the dramatic; Shakespeare's Julius Caesar being a favorite of his.
"Gracie, what is it? You look like you've seen a ghost."
She studied the historical photo accompanying the headline: Earth, circled by a satellite ring and flanked by stars and planets, loomed over the entrance of the casino. A ghost from the past. Her past. How could I forget? How am I supposed to relax?
She lifted her gaze to her husband. He looked fine in his dark gray windowpane suit, the richness of his deep bronze skin enhanced by his ivory shirt and his snowy hair clipped close. The purple tie he wore complimented the purple and ivory swirl pattern of her shantung petal jacket and flared dress. It pleased him to compliment her style, he reminded her often. She dearly loved her man but knew he would downplay her memory fade as nothing to worry about. Forgetting the Stardust unsettled her too much to be made light of.
"Must be this awful heat," she finally said.
Concern plowed Ed's forehead. "Maybe you should stay home today, honey."
"Lord have mercy, no. The sisters'd be rushin' over after church to fuss on me."
"Uh huh. The widow Boucher makes a mean macaroni and cheese casserole," he said with a straight face.
Grace sniffed and Ed's deep laugh boomed off the walls of the breakfast nook. Elsie Boucher had been attending United Christian Methodist longer than any other member of the congregation, including the preacher and his wife. She had a memory that defied her closely guarded age, and in all those un-numbered years the woman still couldn't cook a decent casserole to save her soul.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Ed asked.
Grace's heart tightened. When a handsome preacher-man name of Edward Brown showed up regular at the diner where she waited tables – because he liked the way she poured his coffee – she told him about her papa, a year in his grave by then, how he'd been a professional poker player and how she played alongside him once she got grown. "I thought you should know," she said, "'fore you get any notions about asking me to marry you. Something like that gets out, it could look bad on your reputation."
"Do you still gamble?" he asked.
"No. I couldn't keep my emotions out of it anymore. Those days are behind me."
"That suits me fine."
It suited Grace too. She accepted his proposal and devoted the next forty years to being a wife, mother, and active member of the church. The stories she told of her papa, Charlie James, faded over time, pushed into the recesses of her memory by the needs of living in the present day-to-day. What if she lost those stories of the past for good? What, or who, would she forget next? Ed? Their children? Brother Joe?
Grace's hands shook a bit as she folded the newspaper and smoothed the crease. The battery-operated clock above the stove ticked with methodic persistence while her husband waited for an answer.
Straightening, she pushed her chair back, said, "I'll be fine," and stood before Ed could reply. She reached for her purple Kentucky Derby straw hat with its up-turned wide brim, large milk-white silk roses and sheer organza ribbon. "We need to go. You don't never like to be late for churching."
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