Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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When her father died five years ago, Alice had a dream that gave her a great deal of comfort. Her father was sitting at the end of the bar in MacDonald’s — where the owner later put up a little brass plaque with his name on it — and Alice came in and tugged at his sweater to ask him for nickels for the pinball machine. In the dream she was still her age, sixty-two, but at the same time she was somehow a little girl. Her father gave her a roll of nickels and smiled at her, and as she watched he began taking off his clothes. He removed his button-down sweater, the yellow golfing shirt and the blue-and-white striped trousers, and when he’d taken off his boxer shorts he peeled out of his skin. Underneath there was nothing — nothing, at least, that corresponded to bones or organs — just a series of quick sparks, like someone’s lighter that wouldn’t quite work. That was her father now, and as she watched him leave the shell of his body behind — somehow it had taken on the colors of his clothes, so that it looked like a deflated beach ball there on the cracked leather stool — Alice saw that death was no big deal.
Alice tried to explain this to her mother, but her mother wasn’t having any. Two years later, Alice’s mother met death with as much fear and resistance as she could muster, weakened as she was by the cancer. Alice sat by her hospital bed and tried to read to her from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one of the many books she’d discovered after the dream about her father. Her mother managed to raise herself up on her pillows and order Alice from the room, so that she left the material world with a nurse instead of Alice holding her hand. “Let go, mother,” Alice said as she left her. “Get out,” her mother gasped, and as far as Alice knows, those were the last words she spoke. Alice hasn’t dreamed about her mother since that day, and she takes this as a sign that her mother, even in death, holds a grudge against her.
Alice’s husband, Bernard, doesn’t believe that dead people can hold grudges. “Of course they can, silly,” Alice tells him as she sets a plate of cracker crumbs on the porch railing. It is a bright October day, and the birds are noisy in the cypress tree that shades the porch. Alice hopes that the hummingbird will come down to the feeder hung on a low branch, so she can get a picture of it with her Nikon. The camera was a birthday present from Bernard last year. Just like Bernard, Alice thinks, to have given her a present she didn’t know how to use. When their friend Bev comes to visit, Bev tries to teach Alice about f-stops and filters, depth-of-field and backlighting, but Alice seems to have a mental block against the technical aspects of photography; she just likes to point the camera and shoot, and they usually come out all right. She takes pictures of the birds in the yard, mourning doves and finches and towhees, but her favorite subject is Bernard. “Smile,” she says, pointing the camera, and he seems to, just a little, tipping up his beak and ruffling his bright blue-black wings. He hops toward the plate of crumbs, watching her, or rather, watching the camera lens. “Go on, Bernie,” she urges, “it’s matzo.” The jay turns his attention to the crumbs, makes a quick stab, and then flies off to the Monterey pine behind the cypress. Alice sighs, her shot spoiled; Bernard never would stand still for a picture. In their house there are more blurred photographs of her husband than she cares to count: Bernard at their wedding forty years ago, ducking his head; Bernard on the ski slopes, bending to adjust his bindings; Bernard in front of a rum birthday cake, shaking his mane of white hair. Alice’s husband was a man constantly in motion, and now that he has returned as a blue jay he is not much different. If anything, he is more nervously energetic than ever. Alice feels slightly peevish toward him sometimes, but she can never really get angry. After all, as Bernard keeps reminding her, she is lucky to have him there at all.
“Come eat your breakfast,” Alice calls, but Bernard stays hidden in the high pine branches. Even though he makes no sound, she knows he is up there, just as she knows how he answers her. “Hold your horses. I’ll eat when I’m ready, Alice,” he is saying inside her head, pretending to be annoyed.
Alice goes back into the house, setting the camera on the marble-topped coffee table, and pours herself a cup of Lipton’s in the kitchen. Dawn is Alice’s favorite time of day; this morning she listens to the cars coughing to life along the street, beginning the commute down to San Francisco, and she feels glad that today she has nowhere to go, nothing to pull her away from her peaceful house and yard. Bernard was always taking her to his students’ recitals or to parties. The recitals were usually bad — he did have a few students with talent, but most of them just quavered into their flutes, their intonation slightly flat — and the parties had nothing to recommend them except Bernard, who was witty and entertaining in public but whom she would much rather have had to herself. At parties Bernard was surrounded by friends and students, and by the occasional strangers who had heard him play forty-odd years ago at Carnegie Hall and had followed his career all this time. Of course they would remember Alice, too, who had accompanied the great virtuoso — Alice who had hunched over the Steinway, playing, as one critic said, as if possessed by Mozart himself. That had been their first performance together, and had been followed by concerts all over the world. Alice had been pleased at the idea of a ghostly Mozart guiding her, though she has never, before or since, actually sensed his presence. Lately, when she sits at the piano, it is her father she senses, pacing back and forth with a coffee mug of Dewar’s, drinking and correcting her, rambling on about the lives of the composers. “Where’s mother?” Alice sometimes asks him, but he just smiles and drifts into the kitchen for more scotch. When the bottle is empty, Alice replaces it. She keeps the liquor cupboards stocked, the refrigerator full of the foods Bernard loves: peaches and figs and Bulgarian yogurt, wild baked tofu and Pepperidge Farm lemon cookies. Alice loves to cook almost as much as Bernard — though of course he doesn’t cook anymore — and she will sometimes stuff zucchini from the garden, or make something spicy and exotic with eggplant.
Alice pours herself a second cup of tea and sips it as she makes French toast for her breakfast, spreading it with the homemade blackberry preserves Bev brought her last week. How Bev has time to make preserves is a mystery to Alice; Bev seems to spend all her time travelling since her Howard died. In the past three years she has been to Bali, China, Yugoslavia, Ghana, France and Scotland; she has just left on a cruise to Hawaii. Alice can’t afford to travel like Bev does, but even if she could, she can’t imagine leaving Bernard. How would he feel if he landed on the porch railing one morning and she wasn’t there? “You’d manage,” Alice says. “The truth is, Bernard, I’m just a homebody. You’re stuck with me, kiddo,” she says. Then she sighs. Bernard as a blue jay is a comfort, but she still misses seeing him across the table. She gets up to clear her plate and cup and peers out the window, searching the branches that tremble a little in the breeze, like a man with palsy, Alice thinks, like Bernard at the end. Even dying, Bernie, you couldn’t keep still. When you couldn’t play the flute any longer you took up painting with large brushes, and when you couldn’t do that you started dictating your memoirs into the Walkman I got you for your seventy-fifth birthday. You were like my mother, Bernard: you couldn’t let go. In the end you were angry that it had all slipped away from you, little by little, and you felt beaten.
“Poor Bernie,” Alice says aloud, and goes to wash the dishes. When that is done she walks through the house with a dustcloth, wiping the stereo and television, flicking at the carvings and statues that Bev keeps bringing her from around the world. Possessions, Alice thinks, are just one more burden. They keep you in their service, always. The house, when Bernard was alive, seemed to need constant attention. The roof leaks now in three places, and she knows there are termites; Bernard used to have the exterminators come out, but Alice can’t bear the thought of strangers in the house, now that she is alone. She vacuums the living room rug, stained in one corner from the newest leak, thinking that she must get to the store and buy another big bucket before the next rain. Then she goes out to the porch again to sit on the sunny steps. “Bernard,” she calls. “Do you think the house looks nice?” She waits, but of course he doesn’t answer; he never liked to praise her. With Bernard, actions, not words, were what counted. Alice smiles as the big jay swoops down, heading for the birdbath in the garden. The water on his wings looks iridescent. Alice remembers a night when the four of them — she and Bernard and Bev and Howard — went skinny-dipping in the Russian River, and how comical Bernard looked when he got out and walked around in nothing but his hiking boots on the rocky beach. He clomped off to their tent, and when she came in a few minutes later, dripping from the river, he had taken off the boots and was waiting for her. “You’re so lovely,” he had said then, and that was one of the few times he told her so. But the way he watched and touched her, the way he said, “Alice, Alice, Alice” whenever she was gone and came back to him, the way he listened to her play the piano, his head tucked and dark eyes closed. . . . “Alice,” Bernard calls, and she starts; she had been about to fall asleep. “There’s your hummingbird,” Bernard says. “Go and get the camera.”
Alice jumps up and races into the house, but because the house is dark compared to the glare outside, and because she is running too fast, compelled by the urgency in Bernard’s voice, she trips on the edge of the rug and falls against the coffee table. Her head hits the corner of the thick marble and blood streams into her eyes as she collapses on the rug.
Lying there stunned, Alice listens: she hears the breeze playing the chimes on the porch, the low call of a mourning dove, the hum of the electric clock on top of the television. She listens for Bernard, for his voice to say, “Alice? Are you all right? Shall I call the doctor?” but she doesn’t hear him. Instead she hears her mother’s voice, hoarse with cigarette smoke, high and a little thin, the way she sounded in the hospital asking for water or morphine or a nurse. “Let go,” her mother says. “Let go, Alice.” Alice blinks and turns her head toward the porch, but the cypress, backlit by the sun, is a dark blur, and she can’t tell if the hummingbird is still there. She closes her eyes and sees Bernard coming toward her, his white hair flowing behind him, a book of sonatas under his arm. When she opens her eyes she sees the oak beams of the living room ceiling. They look close enough to touch; for a moment Alice wonders if she will turn and see herself there on the rug, an old woman in a brown terrycloth robe crumpled in a lifeless heap. “No,” she says, and the sound of her own voice startles her, it is so loud. She sits up slowly and puts a hand to her hair, wet and matted at the temple. The room tilts around her and then straightens. Using the table for leverage, Alice pulls herself to her feet. When she feels less dizzy she walks shakily to the bathroom, wets a washcloth and dabs at the cut on her temple, then holds it pressed against the wound to stop the still-flowing blood. Holding the washcloth, she goes out to the porch and sits down. “I’m sorry, Bernard,” she says, looking up at the trees. “You’ll wait until I’m ready, won’t you?” she says, watching the branches sway, watching the light break into colors as it passes through the prism hung next to the feeder, the tiny bird hovering there, its wings beating so fast she can see right through them.