The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I ’m forty-one, but my nine-year-old son persists in thinking I’m only forty. He’s at that phase when children become obsessed with their parents’ mortality, and for him this takes the guise of frequent (incorrect) recitations of my age, my birth date, and how old I’ll be on my next birthday. I find myself unable to tell him that I am, in reality, forty-one (although I know for a fact I can pass for thirty-eight).
Louise, my Italian-born neighbor, is eighty-five. “Get over here!” she shouts to me over the phone at 7:30 one weekday morning while I’m in the middle of getting my son ready for school, making breakfast, and dressing for work. “Get over here and see how beautiful my hair turned out! I curled it; it turned out beautiful!” I count to three and manage to beg off without screaming back at her.
Louise Castino, who’s lived in the suburbs of New York City for more than six decades but still refers to pasta sauce as “gravy,” became my friend when she discovered I’d spend a few companionable moments with her now and then. She and her husband, Ralph, live two doors down. They are childless: he a retired cobbler and she a retired dressmaker. Both are tiny and shrunken, but energetic in a doddering way. Louise is unsteady on her pins but still makes fresh pasta. She has taken to coming over to my house to complain about property taxes and doctors and this and that. Sometimes she drifts into Italian, but she always snaps back.
“Those teeth,” she says one day, peering savagely at me. “Those aren’t your real teeth.”
I try to stifle a small snort. “Of course they are, Louise,” I say, and smile broadly to give her a good view.
She tilts her head sideways, a cunning look in her eyes. “No, those aren’t your real teeth,” she pronounces. Apparently her disbelief will persist until I permit her to tap on my teeth, possibly to pull on them — which I will never do.
About once a week, I see Louise slowly tottering up my front walk to yell at me. She shakes a finger an inch or so from my nose and, pointing to a bare spot in my front garden, tells me I’m lazy. Then she moves on to my appearance: Your hair is wrong, she says in a curmudgeonly tone. She delivers a litany of reproofs: Your flowers are no good, your teeth are false, your son is going to leave you. . . .
Now, I have independent outside confirmation that I am a hard worker; my teeth, of course, are my own and quite sound; and when my son leaves me eventually to go off to college — well, that is exactly what I am planning for him to do. So how am I to respond to such carping by the person who has become my bosom companion, my confidante — an eighty-five-year-old Italian immigrant of slightly fascist bent who hates the pope and the Vatican but keeps pinned to her kitchen wall a newspaper picture of Clinton and Gore’s inauguration? In the photograph, both men exude the self-satisfied air of canary-filled cats. “Look,” Louise says, leading me to the clipping and caressing it with her fingers, “how handsome, how young.” And she stands transfixed, gazing at the politicos.
“Yes, Louise, I suppose so,” I say. “I do vote Democratic. But don’t you think Bill’s a little on the fat side?” I say this just to tease her, to get her juices flowing. I don’t want to leave the air full of her unwarranted bliss.
“Fat?” she repeats, scowling at me in dismay. “What fat?”
“Yes, fat. You know, he eats too much. And they both go to the hairdresser too often.”
Louise glares at me. “Fat? Fat? You don’t know anything about fat.” She waves her hand dismissively, shooing away an abomination. Then her scowl slowly fades, replaced by a roguish smile. She is beaming again at Bill and Al. “Oh, they’re handsome, very handsome,” she says. “I don’t care what you say.”
We drift away from the photo and sit down for some tea. I sneak a glance at my watch: forty minutes? Have I been here forty minutes?
“Lipton soup!” she is screeching now, shaking the red box in my direction. “It’s good. It’s good. Just add a little more pastina and give it for dinner to your husband and your son.” Louise is a true Lipton’s lover; she can whip up a dinner for two for about thirty-seven cents. By now, she’s blazed that Lipton-soup recipe into my memory.
I ’m not lazy. I work part time as an accountant for a watch importer and am also starting my own small business in my house: a mail-order children’s bookstore. Yet my laziness is a constant motif in Louise’s critiques. For her, I am representative of all recalcitrant humanity. Despite this, I am more and more attracted to her irascible charm, her glittery-eyed know-it-all-ness.
My nine-year-old deplores her. “She’s nuts; she says I’m a bad boy,” he mutters to me. And it is true that both Louise and Ralph frown and shout at him for walking too slowly down the street, for stopping to squat and peer at an ant colony. They refer to him as “the baby,” even in front of him. I know they believe in hitting children with sticks to make them mind. And I know they consider me crazy for burying kitchen garbage in a mulch pile in my back yard. Yet, though my son hates Louise, he rather admires Ralph, whom he saw one day shaking a fist at some squirrels, yelling, “Damn bitches! Damn bitches!” My son, starry-eyed in disbelief, has told me this tale a number of times.
Then there is my husband, who makes brief slighting remarks about Louise — remarks at which I nurse secret grievance. Sometimes I challenge him outright: “Louise is my friend,” I say. “I love Louise.”
The Castino home is neat as a pin, with no mess anywhere: no books, no magazines, no crucifixes. Ralph and Louise are cleaning out their house bit by bit, in an organized way, so that by the time they die it will be completely empty. They seem to be planning to leave this earth without a trace.
Louise calls me frequently to ask if I’d like an old single mattress, an aged set of Tupperware, an unused carpet remnant. When she gets my answering machine, she never leaves a message, but I always know she’s called because she doesn’t hang up until well after the beep. In person, she says, “Why you need that machine? That’s a stupid thing. I’m not going to talk on that.”
On one visit Louise tells me, darkly, “I’m tearing up all my old photos. Who am I going to give them to? Who will there be to look at them? No one. I’m tearing them up.” She continues, “All I hope is that I die before Ralph. What am I going to do without Ralph? Please, just let me die first.”
“Oh, come on, Louise,” I say. “You could last another twenty years.”
“Hah,” she says. “You think I’m gonna live to be a hundred? No, I’m gonna die. Pretty soon,” she says, holding an imaginary phone receiver to her head, “I’ll call you up to say I’m dead.”
Ralph laughs at me while I garden. He’s been gardening for sixty-five years, while I’m a mere novice with fifteen years under my belt. Still, he eyes my grape hyacinth with great interest.
“What is that? Did you put that in there?” he asks.
“Yes. It’s from a bulb. You plant it in the fall,” I say.
“And you have to take it out?” he asks.
“No,” I say, “it’s like the tulips. You just leave it in and it comes back every year.”
“Tulips,” Ralph says with derision. He needn’t say more. I’ve already heard both him and Louise denigrate tulips: their bloom time is so pathetically short, only ninnies waste time and money on them.
In the summer Ralph grows tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, basil, and parsley. He never buys seeds; he harvests his own each year. He is proud of his tiny garden patch, whose bounty spills over to us, for no way can he and Louise even make inroads on all those vegetables. Louise brings the produce over in a brown paper bag. “Eat it. It’s good,” she instructs. “Don’t throw it out.” I assure her we will happily consume it. “Please, please, don’t tell anyone,” Louise begs, glancing out my window in case any neighbors are lurking about. “Don’t tell anyone what I give to you.” I assure her that her offering will remain a secret.
This summer our tomatoes are bigger and more advanced than Ralph’s. My husband points this out with classic macho pride. “Better not tell him,” my husband says, beaming. “He’ll have a heart attack.”
“I have a jacket, beautiful, beautiful,” Louise tells me one summer day. “A jacket I’m saving, a red jacket — with long sleeves, of course, because you have to have long sleeves when they put you in that box. It’s beautiful, beautiful, all ready; it’s hanging in my front closet. Wonderful red — you come and see it.” She pauses, trailing off a bit. “The only thing I don’t like is what they do: they put a hole in your foot and out comes all your blood, your liquid. I don’t like that. I hate to think of that. But what can you do? That’s what they do.”
As it is an officially recognized act of charity to visit the elderly, I make sure to ring Ralph and Louise’s doorbell every so often and stay to chat for a minute or two. I sometimes find myself begrudging them the time, though, for I’m always behind on the paperwork for my mail-order business. My house is becoming a swamp of order forms, children’s books, and packing materials. My husband is starting to grow quietly tense about the situation, and I believe he secretly hopes I’ll go back to my accounting job full time. So sometimes I’m annoyed at the time Louise eats up. But I don’t want the Castinos to get the sense that they are always coming to me, always imposing.
On one of my visits, Louise pulls me aside in their living room. “Who did you come to see?” she whispers. “Me or him?” She indicates Ralph with a tiny jerk of her head. She is staring at me, trying to read my face.
“I came to see both of you,” I say slowly. Aha, I think, a bit of jealousy at work. Damned, diabolical Louise — depend on her to want to keep both me and Ralph all to herself, but also keep the two of us separate.
The thing is, Ralph is still incredibly sexy in his eighty-five-year-old way. It’s in his wiry build, in the way he holds his arms, in the forward motion of his walk as he thrusts the space aside. He is still very much a presence. “That Ralph,” I say to my son one day right after Ralph leaves, having delivered a handful of fresh basil, “that Ralph is still a sexy guy.”
My son looks up, disgusted. “You’re nuts, Mom,” he says. “He’s old. He’s an old, shriveled tomato.”
But I know I’m right.
Louise comes in unannounced one day and as usual interrupts me at my work. My little business is failing rather inexorably, in a steady downhill sort of way. Soon I will be forced to return to accounting full time. Damn, damn, damn! My sweet pipe dream is drifting off into vapor, and I am so heavily in the red I don’t dare tell my husband. Louise intrudes on my depression.
“That doctor,” she says, “I tell him if his wife had this pain he’d give her something — but me, does he care? No, he don’t.”
I suddenly burst into tears.
Louise pats me on the hand and says, “Oh, don’t be so upset; it’s OK.”
But I tell her no, it’s something else; it’s my business, my small-business failure. I point to the piles of paper all around me.
Louise sits quietly and stares at me in sympathy, thinking. Finally, she tells me, “Maybe you better go back to school. You’re young. Go back to school. Look at your face: you are so beautiful, your face looks so lovely and smooth, and you have no wrinkles.”
I smile and try to take a bit of comfort in the fact that I’m not yet a wrinkled old lady.
Louise continues: “I’m all wrinkles, not like you. I’m disgusting, my life. The medicine I have to take — too much medicine all the time and it doesn’t fix me. I might as well die. I’m disgusting, my life.” She looks up, and her disgust with herself spills away as she squints at me: “Those teeth. They’re not really yours.”
It’s a hot day, but I’m outside gardening, feeling the sun bake my skin as though I were a tomato. Louise is in her living room with her air conditioner blasting, watching her 2:30 soap opera. I can feel her in there, frowning at the screen, piecing together in her mind the nefarious goings-on of her daytime drama. Ralph, on the other hand, walks four blocks to the grocery store every morning around eight, and then again at 2:30, when her show is on. Even on days like today, when it’s above ninety, he heads down to the market in search of a word or two with any old crony who might be about.
We’re having a small bathroom added in the attic of our house. Both Louise and Ralph think it’s a big mistake.
“You’re crazy,” Louise tells me. “Why you need that? You need a new car, a bigger television.”
I explain to her that it is for the comfort of guests — and, besides, when our son gets a bit older he can move his bedroom up there if he wishes.
“You’re crazy if you think your son stay with you!” Louise hollers at me. “He’ll find a woman and leave you. He won’t stay with you forever! You people in this house, you don’t use your brain!” Still shouting, she turns and heads back home.
My husband and I go with Ralph to help him get some manure for his garden. When we return, the two men pull the heavy bags out of the trunk. Thinking this might be too much for Ralph, I jump out of the car to assist him, but he waves me away. “I can do it,” he says brusquely. He and my husband drag the bags into Ralph’s garage.
“You’re in pretty good shape,” my husband tells him.
“Hmm?” asks Ralph.
“Good shape,” my husband repeats, flexing his own muscles to illustrate. “You’re a strong guy.”
Ralph nods. “I’m 150 pounds,” he says.
My husband and I avoid exchanging glances.
“I’m 150 and not a pound more. No more.” Ralph waves a stern finger at us.
“Yes, Ralph, I believe it,” my husband agrees. “I believe you’re not an ounce more than 150.”
We walk home laughing. Ralph weighs 110 if he’s lucky. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him tip the scale at ninety-five.
“You’re like a sister to me. I have no one left,” Louise tells me, handing me some lovely plum tomatoes and fistfuls of intoxicating-smelling basil. It is a late-July evening and the air is heavy and sweet. “Don’t tell anyone,” she reminds me, pointing to the produce. “Please, don’t tell anyone.” And she leaves.
It’s Saturday: chore time. I’m dusting pictures in the upstairs hall while my husband helps our son sort through the chaos in his bedroom. “You’re five years older than Mom,” I hear our nine-year-old teasing. “You’re an old man, five years older than Mom.”
“No, I’m not,” my husband replies in measured tones. “There’s four years’ difference.”
“Wrong, Dad. You’re forty-five and Mom’s forty: that’s five years.”
I’ve been concentrating on the dusting, but now I listen more closely.
“Mom’s not forty; she’s forty-one,” my husband says. “Mom’s forty-one.”
Do I detect a note of malice in his clear, ringing voice? Maybe a whiff of betrayal? I wait for my son’s response, but there is none. I can’t see them. I’m upstairs, holding my duster, thinking, Shit, it’s true: I’m forty-one. Soon I’ll be forty-two. And then eighty.
Louise dislikes my long hair; every time she sees me, she says, “You look terrible! Your hair is terrible, old. Cut it: make yourself young. What’s the matter — you can’t spend a little money?”
This goes on for months. Finally, worn down, I get a haircut. When I return from work at the watch importer’s that afternoon, I learn that Louise has been over to my house three times already, looking for me. (Ralph has seen me earlier and reported to her about my hair.) When she finally catches me at home she says, “Oh, you got your hair cut; it’s good.” She stares at me awhile, nodding. “But you didn’t really get it short,” she says, her smile fading. She tells me Ralph has lots of tomatoes, lots of cucumbers, too, if I want any. She tells me about her morning doctor visit for a blood test. Then she breaks off and glares at me. “I don’t like what they did to your hair,” she says finally. Her face has taken on a stricken look. “I don’t like it — it’s still too long. You need it shorter, shorter.”
“That’s OK, Louise,” I tell her. “I like it. And if I ever decide I don’t like it, I’ll go back and get it cut again.”
“Oh,” says Louise, and she nods to herself. Then her face lights up. “Oh, I see: next month, when you have more money, you can go back and get it cut the right way.”
She’s cooked up some notion that I don’t have enough cash to get a decent haircut, so I’m working on a kind of cut-rate, incremental system to improve my looks. I open my mouth to explain that it doesn’t work that way — that one haircut costs as much as another, more or less — but then I say nothing. Hell, let her enjoy her theory.
When my mother-in-law arrives for a brief visit, Louise’s curiosity is piqued. “Does she live in an apartment?” Louise asks. I’m sitting in the Castinos’ living room drinking the small glass of ginger ale Louise has provided me.
“No,” I say, “she lives in a nice, little house with two bedrooms and one bathroom and a pretty yard. It’s all on one floor so she doesn’t have to deal with steps. And she has a friendly dog, a golden retriever.” I see Louise is giving me her classic horrified look, so I pause.
“A dog?” she asks. “She has a dog?” She pauses to build up a little steam. “No dogs or cats!” she shrieks. “Old people have to give away all dogs and cats because you will die in the middle of the night and no one will know and then your cats and dogs will be left alone and start to starve and, of course, they’ll eat you. They’ll eat your dead body in the middle of the night — they know when you stop breathing. So tell your mother-in-law to get rid of that dog.”
I nod at Louise and solemnly promise to pass on this invaluable information. We sit together quietly for a moment. Then Louise begins again:
“Oh, my mother — my mother had one wish and that was to be put into a drawer; she didn’t want to go into the cold earth. ‘Put me in a drawer,’ she told us. She got her wish — cost a lot of money, too.” Louise smiles. “She’s in a drawer, nice and dry and high up off the ground.”
She gets up to take something out of her front closet. “I don’t think I said my sister made this jacket.” She pulls out a deep red garment — her burial outfit — takes it off its wooden hanger, and tries it on for me. “See, it’s elegant, lovely; the sleeves and shoulders fit perfect. It’ll keep me warm in the coffin.” She looks up at me. “Now you know where I keep it.”
I’m becoming an instrumental element of Louise’s death scenario. Hiding my uneasiness, I say, “Oh, yes, it’s a perfect fit.” The fabric is rich crimson, soft and plush. She beams happily. “Do you ever wear it?” I ask. Her face contorts, and I realize I’ve committed another abominable sin. I start to say, “Never mind,” but she’s already turned away and begun pulling another jacket from the closet, this one beige.
“Here, my sister made this one, too,” she says. “You try. If it fits you, you take.”
“Um, all right,” I say, not relishing the prospect of a mothball-scented antiquity at just this moment. Thankfully it’s too small; when I let my arms hang down, my wrists are bare. “Oh, it’s not big enough,” I say, trying not to sound too relieved.
Louise tsks and examines the sleeve hems carefully. “No,” she says finally. “No, there isn’t enough material. It can’t fit you.” She shakes her head wistfully as she puts the jacket back on its hanger. “Look how lovely it is. No more can you find work this good.” She returns the jacket to the closet, gives her own red jacket a few tender strokes, and shuts the door, sighing heavily at the mismatch, the lost opportunity.
Another day, Louise comes and gives me a load of old-lady doilies. Some are store-bought, others handmade Italian antiques. “You’re a married woman,” Louise tells me. “You should know how to iron these; dampen them and put in starch and leave them in the fridge for a while.” I vaguely remember my mother doing something of the sort once or twice in a small gesture toward maintaining tradition — another age’s version of elegant housewifery. It’s not a practice that appeals to modern slobby types like me.
“You do it,” Louise commands, shaking her finger at me. “I’m going to come back and check.” She spies the long rectangles of unhemmed silk I’ve laid atop a couple of my tables, and her face looks as if she’s stepped on a fresh turd. “Those are terrible,” she says to me, “terrible! Get rid of them.” She leaves, and I drop the doilies in a heap on a chair in a corner of the room.
I bring Louise a little basket of dried flowers I’ve cut from my garden and arranged myself. It’s tiny and charming. I’d love to keep it, but ever since Louise gave me those damn doilies I’ve felt obliged to give her something in return. At first she’s happy to see me, but when I hold out the little basket to her she eyes it with disgust. “I don’t like that,” she tells me. “Take it back. I don’t want that.” I laugh a little to myself, impressed with her ability to be honest, even if it offends. And I was so wimpy about letting her foist those doilies on me! But she’s eighty-five and I’m only forty-one: I’ve got forty years to perfect being querulous and assertive, forty years to learn how to scream and wave bony fingers and weigh 103 pounds.
I ’m back at the office full time now, and Louise has taken to watching for my car in the driveway; when she sees it she comes over and pounds on my front door with all the arrogance of a tiny woman in her mideighties who knows that, if she doesn’t make demands on the world today, well, then, there might be no tomorrow. I sigh. I get angry. But I always open the door.
One day, she comes in and reminds me of the time, months ago, when I burst into tears because my business venture had failed. “Remember? Remember when you cried?” she says, smiling at me. Yes , yes, I think, let’s reminisce about the good old days. I’ve got a secure office job now. The watch importer loves me, and I can get fancy watches for a song.
Looking around at my furniture, Louise notices that I haven’t stationed the doilies in their appropriate places. “What about the cloths?” she demands. “Did you iron them?”
They are, of course, still in that heap in the corner. I consider the possibility that I will have to kill Louise in self-defense.
“You can give them back to me,” she says abruptly.
“Well, maybe I’d better,” I say.
“I don’t understand this country,” Louise says. “The customs are so different.”
“Yes,” I murmur, “white doilies are not of paramount importance here.”
“What?” she says, giving me one of her chilling glares.
“We just don’t use these things.”
“Ah,” says Louise. “I see: you want to use those dark cloths that hide the dirt.” She points to my silk rectangles.
“Yes,” I say quickly, “that’s it.”
“Well, you can give me back those. I won’t be mad.”
I put the doilies neatly in a bag for her, relieved: she’s not mad; I’m doily-free; we’re both relatively happy. She starts to leave, but turns back to scrutinize me once more.
“That beautiful jacket, the beige one,” she says. “Too bad it doesn’t fit you; too bad you’re too tall.”
Louise finally figures out how to leave messages on my machine instead of just angrily hanging up. “Louise Castino!” she shouts on my tape. “Get over here! I want to see you! Now!” I ignore the messages for a few hours — sometimes even for a day — but I always call her eventually, and when I do she’s quite pleasant. By now I can ignore a lot of her cantankerousness. We’re friends. We have a history. If I come visit, fine; if not, that’s OK, too.
As it happens, Ralph is the first to die. A fast, clean clap of pneumonia takes him in a day and a half: sniffles at home, a pain in the chest, an ambulance to the hospital, one final night, and he’s gone. My husband and I make our way over to Louise’s the morning of the funeral; we’ve offered to accompany her. As we walk up she’s waving away a limo sent by the undertaker. “Aaah,” she exclaims in disgust, “they think I need that big black thing?” She turns and we follow her into her living room; catching sight of the unzipped back to her dress, I quickly zip it up for her.
“Look,” she says, pointing to some carefully packed bundles by the door. “Neat and clean. That’s what he wanted.” It appears she’s managed this very morning to bag a few loads of Ralph’s clothes for pickup by the Salvation Army. She stops and looks at my husband in an appraising way, mouth pursed. “Nah,” she says finally, shaking her head. “Too big.”
“Come,” she says to my husband, and she leads him into the kitchen, where she pulls a bottle of Asti Spumante from the bottom of her fridge and hands it to him. My husband gives me a quizzical look, which Louise catches. “Open it,” she says. “Can’t you do?” She makes a twisting motion with her hand, then gets out some juice glasses. My husband opens the bottle and pours. I reach for a glass and take a long swallow. The Asti is sweet and disgusting, but it does have a certain prefunereal charm. Louise and my husband don’t seem to be having any problem drinking theirs, either, and as my husband refills his own glass, I point to mine, remembering my grandmother’s funeral: I was eight or so. “Pat Grandma goodbye,” the undertaker whispered to my younger brother and me, and, as if to instruct us how, he thumped the corpse firmly on the folded hands. My brother and I responded by instantly bursting into sobs. As I think of this, a tear wells in my eye and I struggle to hide it, but Louise notices.
“Can’t hold her drink, eh?” she says to my husband, smiling and glittery-eyed in her worldly wisdom.
By the time we get up to leave for the funeral home, we are all slightly drunk. Louise disappears for a moment, then returns wearing that crimson jacket with the elegant, structured shoulders. I am a bit startled to see it. “Look,” she says to me, and she smooths the lapels. “Beautiful. Perfect.” And yes, I must admit, it’s perfect.