The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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ALICE’S DOOR is light blue and made of metal. It is not decorated, as are many of the doors I knock on in retirement homes and low-income apartments throughout this once prosperous New England town. Other doors have miniature hats with ribbons, or painted wooden geese: knickknacks left over from long lives, bourgeois attempts at gentility. Alice’s door, instead, is covered with dents, big and little, where relatives and neighbors have vented their frustration on its surface. It is hollow, and my knock echoes in the dark lobby.
“Alice?” I call. “It’s me, the visiting nurse.” I pause and listen hopefully. Sometimes she refuses to answer the door. I call again and listen for the sound of her feet on the grit-covered floor. When I hear her shuffle, I relax and smile, genuinely glad to find her home.
Alice doesn’t smile when she opens the door. She doesn’t have a lot to smile about, and, more than that, to smile would be to grant me points I have not yet earned. At this juncture, I am still a tentacle of authority, reaching out to invade the nominal sanctity of her home. She is dressed in her uniform of loose pants, work shirt, and baseball cap worn backward, an odd affectation for a fifty-year-old woman. Her body is widest at the waist and tapers to a small head at one end and dainty feet at the other. One rarely sees this design in nature, except in the walrus or the seal. The evolutionary advantages are not obvious.
One time, Alice came to the door wearing nothing but a tiny, dirty towel. Since then, I have sometimes thought of her standing there nearly naked, yet apparently unashamed. I have begun to imagine a more perfect Alice underneath that carapace of fat and sagging muscle: Alice in rude good health, as she would be if she were living with a band of hunter-gatherers, walking five miles daily, eating roots and the lean flesh of young deer.
Alice’s apartment is like a cave or a tepee. Her furniture is arrayed along the walls, with a central open area for walking about. Many of her belongings are still in boxes, as if ready for speedy relocation. Given what she has chosen to unpack, I suspect the contents of the boxes would be disheartening: promotional glasses from McDonald’s, broken Christmas lights, torn Mother’s Day cards, clothes in a range of smaller sizes.
Just as there is an optimal Alice underneath the actual one, there is an optimal apartment hidden here. If I were to help her find it, this is how it would look: The curtains would be open. The dishes would be clean. The boxes, with their sad freight, would be unpacked. The television screen would be dusted and the videotapes neatly lined up. There might even be an empty beer bottle with a spray of plastic flowers in it. None of this would keep the upstairs neighbors from blasting Metallica at midnight, and the windows would still look out on a dismal courtyard cobbled with cigarette butts and dried sputum. But Alice would be insulated from all that to some degree.
This is my goal, supposedly: a fitter and tidier Alice. Yet, for some reason, I am ambivalent about accomplishing it, because that would mean changing her, and there’s a possibility that she is a vital part of some greater order that I cannot understand.
TODAY Alice tells me she’s descended from an Indian princess. She is lolling on her wretched brown-plaid couch, her BB gun leaning against the wall nearby. Last week, she used it to threaten the man who drives the disabled persons’ van. He wouldn’t wait for her while she had a doctor’s appointment, so she pointed her BB gun at him. Alice is also notorious for having fractured her ex-husband’s skull with a frying pan after he beat her up.
“Alice,” I say, “you can’t just go around pointing a gun at people, even if it is just a BB gun.”
“But he wouldn’t wait for me,” she says, “an’ I was coughin’, an’ I think I had a fever. What was I gonna do?”
“Beg, plead, wheedle,” I say, “but don’t point a gun at people. You could get in big trouble.”
“I don’t give a shit,” she says.
“How’d you get so tough?”' I ask jokingly.
“Supposeably,” she says (she often mangles words from a combination of early deafness, missing uppers, and poor education), “I’m descended from an Indian princess.”
“Really? What tribe?” I ask.
“Mohawk,” she says.
“That accounts for your wild side,” I say.
Alice laughs proudly. “And somebody on the Mayflower, too,” she adds.
I do not secretly laugh when Alice mentions the Mohawk princess and the Mayflower ancestor. I do not even smile inwardly. Instead, I examine her, fascinated, letting my eyes rest on the ever widening bald spot on top of her head. And suddenly I have a vision in which it isn’t just Alice before me anymore. I imagine I see her genes spread out before me, and my eyes can read them the way those supermarket sensors read a bar code. A shimmering ancestral tree blooms out of her back and expands through the wall of her apartment, climbing into the sky. There are people, so many people, and stories, both tragic and inspiring, terrible and tender — enough to tell the whole story of humankind.
I listen to Alice’s own tales of woe: how the police broke down her door because they thought she’d overdosed on medication; how some punk stole her insulin needles for heroin; how she lost her last two bucks while walking down to the police station to complain about the noisy neighbors. And as I listen, a deep part of me bows before her. Who am I to judge what she has come to?
True, Alice’s genes are going through a rough stretch. They’re refugees crammed into tramp steamers and lifeboats and wooden sailing ships, buffeted about on the Atlantic, headed for God knows what. But you can’t always tell which genes will prevail. There’s an element of luck here. Evolution does not always favor the strong.
Take Alice’s Mayflower ancestor. Say she’s made it across the Atlantic, and she’s stepping out onto Plymouth Rock. True, Plymouth Rock may be just a fable, but for the purposes of our story, let’s say there was a rock. Let’s say it was large and gray and slippery from a light rain. Let’s picture the ancestor’s leather-clad foot landing on the rock. Let’s imagine what’s happening in this woman’s mind. She has left the relative safety of England and is leaping into the unknown. She’s taking an immense gamble with no idea of how high the stakes are. (Half of the Pilgrims will die in that first winter.) She is so anxious and tired she can barely take in the beauty of the land around her, much less picture the long-term results of her arrival. Maybe later she will imagine her descendants: tall, God-fearing, hardworking people, walking the streets of the towns that will be erected here. But by no stretch of the imagination does she envision Alice, nor the cheaply rehabbed mill housing, chockablock with the poor, nor the crude music cascading down from upstairs.
In the months to come, Alice’s ancestor will hear the Indians of Squanto’s tribe, the Wampanoags, chanting and drumming, and she will shiver in her thin dress, dream about food, and wish she’d never come to this new land. She’ll never know that, in a mere three hundred years, this country will be settled from sea to sea; that it will be the most powerful country on earth, home to millions; and that her genes will have made the whole amazing journey — will, in fact, still be traveling: Alice has had five children, and those children have had ten children among them.
The Mayflower ancestor has no idea why she is suffering. She tells herself it’s for God. She doesn’t understand that her real purpose is to carry her genes around in the stateroom of her pelvis.
THOUGH Alice is from New England, she was once a street person in Las Vegas. Don’t ask me how she got from New England to Vegas — it’s far too complicated. Suffice it to say, it was not in a covered wagon, though others descended from the same Mohawk princess and Mayflower ancestor did go west in covered wagons. They were gamblers, too, rolling their genes like dice across the prairie. And what was their reward? Some of them got scalped. Others got Oregon! California!
Alice got Vegas, where you can be a street person year-round, because the weather permits. Like her ancestors, she survived. And who are street people if not practiced survivors, human beings in training for the apocalypse? They have learned to sleep on the ground. They have learned to make foot coverings out of rags. They have learned to enjoy roasted pigeon. They have learned that bathing is an unnecessary luxury. They have learned to sit for long stretches doing nothing but looking at the rain, the ants, the flies. So I ask you, if the planet goes to shit; if El Niño, the ozone hole, the greenhouse effect, volcanoes, earthquakes, tactical nuclear weapons, and viruses finally get the best of us, who will survive? The kids in the barrios. The poor in India. The shepherds in Katmandu. The street people in Vegas. They are the meek, but they have discovered the necessary strength within themselves.
I LEAVE with Alice’s upper dentures in my pocket. They’ve broken in half somehow, and she’s gone without them for months. Medicaid will pay to have them mended, because teeth are a “medical necessity.” Alice has put the dentures in a baggie so old and worn-out that the plastic is nearly opaque. I’m certain they are crawling with germs, but I cannot bring myself to worry. I’ve decided it’s best to develop a tolerant attitude toward germs. Killing them is very low on the list of things I can do for Alice.
I will help her get bifocals and teeth and better pills. I will get her signed up for Meals on Wheels and try to make her stop pointing her BB gun at people. I will go to the apartment-complex office and tell the manager to make the upstairs neighbors lower the volume on their boombox. But while I’m doing all of that, I’ll keep an open mind. Appearances can be deceiving. The dinosaurs once ruled the earth, but a meteor changed everything overnight, and it was the little tree-leaping premammals who filled the gap. In our future, there may be a scenario in which Alice laughs last. We should never underestimate those who have learned to live on the least. We should never forget that only time will tell.