The Grand Prize

by Jonathan Penner

They disturbed Hattie—those glassed botanical engravings hung opposite the elevator doors. Each plant bore, in florid script, its scientific name: on her floor, Anemone latifolia; on Peter’s, Leucojum bulbosum. Beneath their blooms and leaves hung creeping roots, hairy with swirling tendrils. You weren’t supposed to see those horrid roots unless the plants were yanked from the earth and dying.

Still, the engravings were useful, because they showed what floor of Silver Mountain Senior Living she was on. If red Anemone latifolia, this was Hattie’s floor. If blue Leucojum bulbosum, she was one flight up, on Peter’s floor, the third. That was easy to remember: she’d been a redhead, and Peter’s eyes were blue. On the first floor, where Hattie checked her mail daily to see if she’d won any sweepstakes, the elevator opened to a view of potted palms.

She shared an apartment with her sister, who wore the pants, as their mother had said. Ruled the roost. Was queen bee. Eleanor, who’d been a lawyer, could summon torrents of reasons to prove she was right about everything. In addition, she said, she had to get her way because Hattie was better at surrendering—if she herself gave in, she’d stew, but Hattie would get right over it. And Hattie knew that this was true. Eleanor’s anger was dramatic and glorious, while Hattie couldn’t stay mad even when she should. All her life, she’d been (their mother’s word) a milquetoast.

Eleanor protected her, though. When Nina’s gang mocked the way Hattie carried her hands at her waist—a survival from her career as a hand model—Eleanor mocked them back until they fled the card room. Hattie was proud of her quick-witted sister. Almost every month, Eleanor won the Bee Brainy, several rounds after Hattie was eliminated—usually, it seemed, by accommodate. She was simply unable to spell that word. Peter was a good speller, but his hearing aids were unreliable. This month he had gone down when he heard eminent as imminent. Afterward, he’d criticized the Social Director’s diction, and Eleanor had called him a sore loser before smothering him in a bosomy hug. Peter, passive in her grip, had smiled and closed his eyes in pleasure. Eleanor liked handling men. Though she’d never been married, she’d had a portfolio of lovers who were.

After the card-room episode, Nina’s gang had written to the Silver Mountain management, complaining that Eleanor stole food from the dining room. “This uncleanly habit,” they wrote, “beckons the attention of roaches and rodents.” Hattie was infuriated—her sister was fastidious! Eleanor vacuumed crumbs after breakfast, Scotch-taped dust from the bottoms of chair legs, changed her underwear morning and night. But it was true that during dinner she wrapped food in packet-size tissues—a chop, or some fries, or an extra dessert—and afterward brought it upstairs. The Director had told Eleanor twice: no perishable food to be carried up from the dining room. But she was paying for the food, Eleanor insisted. She was paying plenty!

Paying plenty—that hurt, because Eleanor paid rent for them both. She’d retired a rich woman, while Hattie had only a nest egg for long-term care. And Eleanor didn’t need the extra food, she already ate too much. “Just order the fruit plate,” Hattie suggested. “You’re killing yourself with fat and salt.  You’ll eat yourself to death and I’ll be alone, is that your purpose?” Every night, when they wished each other sweet dreams and said “I love you,” Hattie was afraid she’d wake up to find her sister cold and still. As little girls they’d shared a bedroom, just as they did now. They’d taken baths together, legs twined. They’d yelled “Submarine attack!” as they squirted the slick bar of soap between them, invisible in the dusky depth.


Peter was one of the few residents who drove at night. Black paint faded and flaking, doors and fenders pocked by dents, his old Cadillac still had power. Whenever the sisters rode with him, Hattie sat in front. Eleanor said she felt safer in back. She warned of upcoming red lights and criticized lane changes until Peter would say over his shoulder, “Thank you, dear. I’ve driven in Rome at rush hour.” He took them to movies and concerts, and sometimes just cruising—that was what he called it. The word made Hattie feel young and brave.

She had a secret wish: to present him with a new sports car. Peter would be stunned—he didn’t have much money. He’d even fallen behind in his rent, and once she’d helped him cover it. She imagined giving him the keys to a powerful Corvette, or one of those sleek Italian models. If she emptied her long-term care account, a heart-stopping thought, she’d have enough.

So far, all she’d done was enter every mail-in sweepstakes—she didn’t trust the Internet kind—that had sports cars as the Grand Prize. The odds were fantastically long; she knew that. Yet each night, waiting for sleep, she imagined placing the keys in his palm and folding his fingers over them. She couldn’t tell Eleanor, who would call the idea daft or just laugh herself breathless and hold her sides. But this was where Hattie held the advantage. Sweepstakes required certain qualities, like neat penmanship and patience with knotty instructions, that Hattie prided herself upon and that Eleanor lacked. Anyway, the Grand Prize was a two-seater. There’d be no room for Eleanor.


Peter was a bachelor on principle, so he claimed, but what could the principle be? Such a handsome man could have married almost anyone. Hattie pictured, in fact, a series of beautiful wives. And why not husbands? Eleanor added. He could easily be bisexual. But a lot about Peter was mysterious. He’d traveled the globe for decades, he said, shepherding executives, his jacket packed with cash for bribes. He even seemed to hint that he’d been a spy. But when Hattie gathered the nerve to ask, he widened his eyes and said nothing.

Her husband, Josiah, gone fourteen years, hadn’t been mysterious. He’d been an artist, though: a designer and builder of custom cabinets. When Hattie couldn’t have children and fell in love with miniature dolls, tiny French ladies in lace gowns, creamy-cheeked girls with Victorian bustles, Josiah built her a turreted Queen Anne dollhouse. Period furniture to scale, walnut armoires, wing-back chairs of maple, and a thimble-sized cage holding a blue-and-gold macaw. Without fail, he brought home chocolate-covered cherries on her birthday and their anniversary. She prepared bland dinners that eased his indigestion, with meatloaf every Sunday, and he never asked for anything different. Each night when he came home, his hair sprinkled with sawdust, she’d known how long he liked her to kiss him and when it was all right to stop.

No disloyalty to him. But she shivered with elation when she sat in the Cadillac next to Peter, the kids in the car alongside grinning back at her—out for the night just like them. When the sisters and Peter went to Vittorio’s, he’d run his finger down the wine list, then order a bottle whose name Hattie wouldn’t dare try to pronounce. After a concert or a movie, he’d treat them to ice cream, then cruise out of town, far enough for the stars to brighten, not turning for home until Eleanor was snoring in the back seat. Maybe some night he wouldn’t turn. Maybe he’d drive them over the mountains, past waterfalls, around the shores of wide lakes with the moon’s reflection trembling abreast of them, then on a narrow forest road, to a cottage that waited for her and him. By then, for unexplained reasons, the back seat would be empty.


The night the sisters talked about it, Eleanor was brutal: Peter had to quit driving before he killed someone. They’d gone to Walgreen’s that afternoon. Hattie browsed the tiers of nail polish, and Eleanor found her digestive powder, while Peter picked up vials of pills for something he called a private matter.

As they were backing from their parking spot, there was a thump that rattled her jaw, and the Cadillac stopped, its rear end elevated. Eleanor yelled, “God damn it!” Peter looked baffled. When they got out, Hattie saw that he’d mounted a concrete barrier.

“Now that,” he said, “is monumentally stupid design.”

“I’m all right,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault. Are you hurt?”

“Not his fault!” Eleanor was still stuck in the rear seat, her feet unable to reach the ground. “Now what are you doing? Stop it, you idiot!”

But Peter kept lowering himself, sighing with effort, an inch at a time, down to hands and knees, then knees and elbows, turned his head sideways, and slid his face under the car. When he pulled it out and looked up, he was flushed and panting. “This isn’t so bad at all. No smell of gasoline.”

He was able to drive slowly forward, landing the car with a jounce, and they returned to Silver Mountain with something rattling underneath. Eleanor bided her time until evening, when Hattie was in the bathtub and couldn’t escape. “Peter needs to give it up. His driving has become demented.”

And Hattie couldn’t defend him. Just yesterday, driving her home from the hairdresser, Peter had drifted from his lane. When the other car blasted its horn and swerved away at the last moment, he’d called it deplorable how many drivers—not just kids, and not only women—had never learned to use their mirrors.

“We’ll both tell him.” Eleanor, in panties and bra, slumped down onto the closed toilet lid.

“I bet it’s a side effect of those pills,” said Hattie.

“And report him to Motor Vehicles.”

The thought of Peter in a crash, his fine features flattened and bloody, was sickening. But he wasn’t a man to doze in the Silver Mountain lobby, or sit around playing pinochle. “Look in his eyes,” she begged Eleanor, as she reached to slide a washcloth between her toes. “He can’t curl up like an old tabby. He’d die!”

Eleanor had a good answer to that. She had many answers, many reasons. Hattie listened a long time and then pretended to listen, watching her sister and nodding. She thought of an evening, close to fifty years ago, when Josiah was taking a bath. He must have been very tired—he’d left his overalls on the floor, and she picked them up by a buckled shoulder strap to give them a sniff. Leaving his wallet, keys, Tums, and pocket knife on his bedside table, she took the overalls down the hall to the laundry room. But before dropping them into the washing machine, she checked the pockets one more time, which was good. There was an additional item, very small: a laminated photo. Curious, Hattie raised it to the light—the woman was her sister. That was odd. Then her head began to pound, because only one explanation seemed possible, and even that seemed impossible. It was such a modest picture for a man to carry of his lover. If Eleanor had been naked on her back, or kneeling with unbuttoned blouse, she’d have dropped the photo into the bathtub with him, then filed for divorce. But Eleanor was standing against a tree, in a billowing coat and floppy beret, looking fat and not even smiling. What could you know from that? How much grief was it worth to find out? There wasn’t time to decide. When she heard the tub drain gurgling, she returned the photo to its pocket, then the keys and wallet and knife and Tums, and dropped the overalls in the corner where he’d left them.

Hattie held her hands clear of the bath water to keep her veins from popping out. Now her long fingers were knobby with arthritis. But when she was young they’d appeared in magazine ads—yellowed copies of which Eleanor still kept in albums—to stroke the cheeks of big-eyed babies, the chins of freshly-shaven men, the stockinged calves of leg models. Her face was never shown, of course. Her face was nothing special. Eleanor had always been prouder of Hattie’s milky skin and red hair and green eyes than she herself had ever been.


The next day, Eleanor chose words that made Hattie shrink. Deteriorating. Incompetent. Peter said, “Thank you, dear. I’ve driven an armored limousine through the streets of Beijing.” She said she wouldn’t ride with him, and would kill him if he hurt her beautiful sister. She ordered Hattie to stay out of that deathtrap.

Hattie didn’t argue. But the following morning, when Peter had to pick up his trousers at the dry cleaner’s, she went with him. Traffic was heavy, and she had her line prepared: “There are so many cars on the road now!”

Peter hummed agreement, so she drew a breath and went on. “I guess driving isn’t what it used to be.”

Then he glanced at her and laughed. “Your sister told you to say that.”

“No, I thought it up with my own little noodle.”

He smiled.

“And the roads are in such terrible repair,” she added.

“There you’re right. This country’s infrastructure has been neglected since Eisenhower.”

If nothing else, she thought, she was making him drive with extra care. He knew what was in the wind.

The dry cleaner was in a nearby strip mall, and he found a parking space right in front. When they had almost reached a stop, the car bucked, leaped forward, and smashed through an expanse of plate glass. They were over the curb, across the sidewalk, they were inside the store. They came to a stop halfway through a carousel of bright garments wrapped in cellophane.

His fingers felt limp, but when she screamed his name Peter squeezed her thumb. His expression, when he turned to her, was one she’d never forget: cocked eyebrow conceding that something unexpected had happened, mouth pursed in a small smile of tentative amusement. The dry cleaner burst into tears when she saw that they weren’t hurt. She tugged open the car doors and led them to chairs behind her counter, brought them bottles of chilled water and twisted off the caps. “I’ve been through fire and flood,” she said, reaching for her phone. “I’m insured to my ever-lovin’ gills. All we need is a police report.”

While they were waiting for the police, Peter told the dry cleaner how he’d had his laundry done by the dhobi-wallahs of Varanasi. His performance voice soothed Hattie as she sipped her cold water. Those dhobi-wallahs, he said, removed even the faintest stain. But then they spread the clothes to dry along the banks of the Ganges, downwind from the cremation ghats, so you’d find someone’s ashes deposited on your tuxedo jacket. Oh, and they’d lost one of his black silk socks! The memory made him shake his head and sigh.

At last a cruiser glided up silently. While one officer took photos, the other inspected Peter’s license and registration. “Just what exactly led to this?”

“The accelerator stuck,” said Peter.

The officer nodded. “A mechanical defect.”


“Sir, which side is the accelerator on?”

Peter stared at him and then, with a lethargy expressing contempt, raised a finger and pointed it to the right.

“Have you been drinking?”

“At this uncivilized hour?”

Hattie managed a smile. But before she could intercede, the officer who’d been photographing asked to take her witness statement. She told him how they’d driven here, and then all she remembered was a smash! His driving? Never a problem. While she spoke, she tried to hear what Peter was saying. That was how she learned that his name wasn’t Peter at all—on his driver’s license, it was Pyotr. He said it in some deep European way, clearing his throat on the last letter.

When they made him walk heel-to-toe, his balance and grace surprised her. They told him to close his eyes and touch the tip of his nose. And after all that, they didn’t take him to the police station, as Hattie had feared. All they did was write him a citation for failure to maintain control of his vehicle.


Eleanor predicted a civil suit, no matter how nice the dry cleaner had been. But otherwise how easily, how harmlessly, this had ended! A wrecker would come to extract the Cadillac, and Peter didn’t even seem to care.

Hattie did miss their drives. Just out of curiosity, now that his car was gone, she looked up how much a new Corvette would cost. The Stingray coupe or the convertible? She would order the Full Length Dual Racing Stripe Package in Midnight Gray, but no other options. She loved to imagine making him the offer, and then to trace the branching avenues their conversation might take. He would be moved by her kindness, certainly. Would he gratefully agree or gallantly decline? And if they were buying the Corvette, which would be more wonderful: going straight to the dealership and driving it home, or sweet weeks of anticipation while it was on order?

But Hattie regretted such thoughts when she heard his carrying tenor note at a Silver Mountain singalong, when she saw him climbing from the pool with drops of water suspended in the gray hair of his chest. This was what her heart should hold, not driving past a midnight lake to a secret cottage in the forest. Now she approached her mailbox warily each morning, hoping she hadn’t won the Grand Prize, but instead second place: two first-class tickets around the world. She’d hold Peter’s hand during takeoffs and landings, as he led her over continents and oceans to the great cities he knew so well.

One morning, standing at their front window, Eleanor shouted, “Shit!” Hattie hurried to look. The old Cadillac had returned, but not as they had ever seen it. All the dents were gone, and the car gleamed with new paint. “He must not have paid his rent again,” Eleanor said. “That cost a fortune.”

When Peter stepped out of the car, then crouched to study its chrome, Hattie went down to meet him in the parking lot. “We’re back on the road,” he told her, “and please, those fists frighten me.”

Hattie heard a sound and looked up. At their second-floor window, Eleanor was pounding on the glass. Then she raised both arms and shouted silently. Peter said, “Tell your sister to mind her own business.”

“She’s afraid you’ll kill yourself!”

“Or are you scared of her? You really are a milquetoast, aren’t you.”

Hattie felt slapped. She’d never spoken that private word to him—he could only have heard it from Eleanor. It was a long-ago word that brought their living mother back. She thought of Peter misspelling eminent and the way Eleanor had embraced him, enfolded him, her flesh knowing exactly where he fit. So be it, she could give him her body. But she couldn’t give him words that conjured their girlhood, words that only they should know.

When she got back upstairs, Eleanor was on the phone. Motor Vehicles would open a file. They’d call him in for a license retest. This would take time—weeks, maybe. “Until then, you stay out of that car!”

“I’m not your little milquetoast,” Hattie said softly.

That day and the days that followed, even nights, she rode with him, begging him to watch the road, slow down, not follow so closely, please watch the road. She told him story after story from the television news: cars folded like accordions, trucks wearing cars across their grilles, cockroach cars dead on their backs, nightly conclaves of police cars and ambulances, their revolving turret lights winking above corpses. Peter listened closely. He called her quite a fascinating narrator. And Hattie felt that this was true. She’d never before spoken like this, didn’t know where she was finding such words—she was only finding them because of him.


One afternoon, he came to their apartment, where Eleanor no longer allowed him. Eleanor was downstairs at Ladies’ Poker.

“Are you ready?” His car keys were in his hand.

“Ready to leave?”

“Ready to go.”

Well, what was the difference? Something made her ask where. He said, “A good long way.”

She imagined them plunging off a mountain road, incinerated when the gasoline exploded. She thought of them angled in a ditch, unhurt but stuck, likely to die but still with a chance of rescue. “Let me think,” she said. She guessed he’d received a summons from Motor Vehicles. “Give me a minute.”

“I don’t have time.”

“Is it the rent? Please, I’ll help you.”

“Just bring your pocketbook, my angel. Your jewelry, if you like.”

“Let me make us a cup of tea.” If she could hold him until Eleanor returned, they’d overpower him and grab the keys.

“Well, then, good-bye, apparently. Don’t cry.” Peter was calm and grave. “It had to be this way.” When he turned to the door, Hattie ran to block him from it and they grappled. It was the first time she’d held him. He wasn’t as strong as she’d thought, and how thin! They staggered against the door frame. His face twisted with a mockery she’d never seen. “You’re really married to your sister,” he panted. “Oh yes, those hands of high renown.” And he bent her fingers back until she had to let him go.

In the dining room that night they sat alone. “You did everything,” Eleanor said. “You were trying to hold a shadow. You know you’ll always have me.” Hattie couldn’t eat more than a buttered roll, but Eleanor wrapped two slices of chocolate cake and slipped them into her pocketbook.

Up in their apartment, they ate the cake while they watched the news. When a fatal car crash sprang to the screen, their hands found one another—a cake fork rattled to the floor, leaving punctuation marks of icing—but the accident report mentioned drinking and racing: not Peter, surely. Finally Eleanor went to bed, and Hattie watched at the window for his return. She was still there, folded in her armchair, when she woke at a silent hour. Certain she’d missed him, she hurried upstairs in nightgown and slippers, past the ghastly flowers naked to their roots, to knock on his door until her knuckles were enflamed.

Published on June 6, 2023