Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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When the doorbell rang, Alice put down her pencil and took another drag on her cigarette. It was nearly noon; the entire morning had somehow gotten away from her. Peering out through the yellowed blinds, she saw a Pittsfield police cruiser parked at the curb. She stood, thought for a moment about what she looked like. A fright, was what. Skin stretched over bone. Hair you could see right through. She could paint on a face, and she knew she ought to, but makeup would mean a trip to the bathroom, the cruelty of light bulbs.
The bell rang again, and this time Alice answered. The officer’s face was sweaty in the Massachusetts summer heat. He held a clipboard. “Ms. Winslow?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, squinting into the brightness.
“I’m here to check on you.”
“Thank you. I’m all right.” She let the storm door start to close, but he stepped forward and held it open. A crackle of static sounded from his police radio.
“I need to make certain that you’re aware there’s a lien on this house. Do you understand? There has been one for some time.”
“Yes, yes,” she said. “I understand. I’m taking care of it.”
“Unless you pay, the city will evict you and take your home.”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
He peered past her into the dark house. “But I am worried about you, Ms. Winslow. You don’t look well. We can help, but we need you to tell us what is going on.”
“I’d like you to go. No offense.”
He made notes on his clipboard. “At least call Elder Services, OK? Here’s some information.” Around the side of the door he slipped a brochure, which she took. She already had three or four copies of it. There really were a lot of services available.
She went back to the kitchen table and looked down at what she had written: Prosciutto e melone. Antipasto platter. Carciofi — artichokes; her son, Nick, liked them. She’d never found them that interesting — all that work to steam, and then needles to avoid, and the ones in jars just tasted of jar, mostly, and oil — but she wanted this to be a good visit. Even if he was just coming to take away her car.
The radio quietly played Schubert, Die Winterreise. Time for another cigarette. She’d had to give up lighters, because it had become painful for her to run her thumb over the striker. There were matches in the good drawer, next to the flatware, by the sink. “Nixon’s the One,” the matchbook declared in red letters on a white background. The bad drawer was just beside it.
You need to make plans, Greenbaum had said. Treatment is no longer an option.
That had been yesterday, at his office. Yesterday? She’d cried a bit in the taxi on the way home, tilting her head toward the window so the driver wouldn’t see.
She settled on the old brown sofa — a piece of junk, really, but when she’d moved in, she’d not had the patience to go shopping for something of quality — and looked up at the water stain that resembled Corsica on the ceiling. What would one do in Corsica? Eat good food, that’s what. Sanglier, which was the French name for wild boar, and which she assumed was the same as cinghiale in Italy, which she’d certainly had. She remembered sitting at a sidewalk table in Siena, enjoying a glass of Tuscan wine. The meat had been prepared simply, with rosemary and a lash of peppery green olive oil, and it hadn’t mattered at all that she was a woman dining alone with nothing but her guidebook for company. She hadn’t needed company.
Behind her, a weatherman on the TV chattered away. There was another TV in her bedroom, but this one she used only for the weather. Her radio, her TVs, the dishwasher, the hot-water heater and furnace — her house was full of voices and conversations. She imagined herself in Corsica, the wind bringing scents of distant cities across the Tyrrhenian Sea: chocolate from Perugia, almonds from Palermo.
Twelve years ago, newly divorced at sixty-five, she’d driven the Honda up from Connecticut, her fists tight around the steering wheel, Kafka, her Scottish terrier, curled in the back seat. Her husband had dumped her for a young attorney in his office, a woman who golfed, a recent graduate of a lower-tier law school, no less, which Alice assumed meant she was as dumb as a nine iron. But nice. She’s nice to me, he’d said when she’d demanded an explanation. You never were. As Alice attempted to put her affairs in order, she told people — the real-estate agent, the man at the bank — that she was a widow. Her husband had died in a freak accident on the links, electrocuted right through the shaft of a brand-new Calloway.
She’d visited Pittsfield once as a child, and her research had suggested that it would be affordable and a pleasant-enough place to live. She bought a modest ranch-style house with a view of South Mountain, paying for it outright with part of her settlement money. Much of the place looked exactly as it had when it was built in 1960, the year she and Richard had married. She felt as if she were starting over, as if time had unwound. The house held half of the furniture from their Stamford home, further contributing to this feeling of simultaneous familiarity and dislocation.
She looked out the picture window of her living room. In summer, trees obstructed her view of the mountain, but as fall wore on and the trees gave up their leaves, the mountain emerged, humpbacked and — she often told herself — not so different from Herman Melville’s Mount Greylock, which he could view from his study just up the road. Those first years after the divorce, she’d traveled, putting Kafka in a kennel and flying to Prague, where her ancestors had owned a brewery; to Florence, where she’d viewed all the famous artworks; and to France, where she’d taken cooking classes in Aix-en-Provence and come down with a stomach bug and spent three days throwing up in a hotel room that overlooked the Cours Mirabeau. But since that last trip she’d stayed put, partly out of frugality — she had only her divorce settlement to live on — but also because of a growing inability to take action of any kind. Formerly a conscientious gardener, she now let weeds and ivy take over. Paint peeled under the eaves of her house; the shower in her bathroom had stopped working, so she had to use the one down the hall. Call plumber, she wrote on her list. Have eaves painted. Pay taxes.
“This looks important,” said Nick. He picked up the letter. “City of Pittsfield. And it came certified.”
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Put it back on the table.”
“I’m going to open it,” he said.
“No, you are not.” She snatched it and put it under an unopened jar of peanuts. Her granddaughter, Brooklyn (a name for a place, not a person!), was outside blowing bubbles with the bubble kit Alice had given her. Not wrapped — none of her gifts were wrapped. It was on her to-do list, of course, had been for days: Wrap gifts. There was wrapping paper on the dining table, where it had been since last winter, shiny red-and-green sheets of it, with sparkling ribbons and bags of bows.
“Mom.” Nick wore cargo shorts and an oversized T-shirt with the word Quasimodo on it. Quasimodo was the company he worked for, in Providence. She did not understand what he did, but it involved computers. She had no interest in them and was tired of Nick trying to convince her of all the wonders of having a computer.
“I wish you’d shave more regularly,” she said to him.
“The guy from the garage offered me two thousand for the car,” he said. “He couldn’t believe the mileage, said it needed a starter was all. And some hoses were rotted out.”
“Of course.” She glanced at the letter. It needed to go into the drawer with the rest of them.
Nick half smiled at her, the way people do when they have run out of things to say. She thought of the photo of him in his white crib in the house on Deer Trail, staring up at her as if to ask, Why am I here? He was a dutiful son now, called regularly every Saturday. She doubted he smoked pot anymore, not at forty-one, not with a wife and a child. But he wanted things from her still. Of course he did. That was the way with children.
She rearranged her pill containers, all of which she kept out on the dining table. There were so many. Like a miniature city of brown towers with white roofs.
“Listen,” she said. “I’m tired. I need to go lie down.”
In her bedroom she cracked a window and lit a cigarette. She’d wanted this visit, but actually having them here was terrible. She lived in fear: fear of what was in those envelopes from the city and the ones from Landover Trust, successor to the now-defunct Dundee Capital Management, whose name she had trusted for its evocation of tightfisted Scottish Protestants, castles, and marmalade jars; fear that her money was now gone, or nearly so. She watched CNN. She knew what had happened to the markets. But she couldn’t bring herself to confront the problem, open the letters, let in the sunlight. Of course, certain bills could not be ignored. The electric. She’d let that go unpaid long enough that they’d turned off her service. Now she always made sure to pay it. Never missed a month. Other things, though, she could put off. She’d never registered the car, and when the insurance had lapsed, she’d taken that as a sign. She’d always hated driving, having learned how only when, in her midthirties, she’d become a mother with errands to tend to. Giving up driving had been a relief. Her car had sat in the garage for years now.
Alice entered the dining room, where Brooklyn was drinking apple juice from a sippy cup with mermaids on it. Alice was sorry her daughter-in-law, Jessie, hadn’t come along. It would have made things livelier.
“I planned to make us fondue,” she said, walking to the kitchen to join Nick, who was washing his hands. “I brought down the pot, purchased all the ingredients. The woman from Home Rangers took me shopping. But I just can’t. Here, pick what you want.” She held out the menu from a local Chinese restaurant.
He dried his hands on a dish towel, then took the menu from her and inspected it. “This place any good?”
“It’s supposed to be.” She had no idea if it was good or not. The menu had been left at her door years ago. A number of times she’d thought to order and had gotten it out, and her pencil markings were all over it, asterisks and underlinings, which did give the appearance that she was a frequent customer.
“What do you want?” asked Nick. “Chicken? Beef? Pork? Shrimp?”
“Not shrimp. That doesn’t sound very good from a Chinese restaurant. Chicken.”
“All right. I can work with that.”
They returned to the dining room. “Grandma,” Brooklyn said, “why is your Christmas tree up?”
“Grandma leaves it up,” said Nick.
Christmas had been a bad time, with the first course of chemo, the one that hadn’t solved anything and had seemed to only make her sicker. She had told Nick not to come, although she had still managed to decorate. Every year she thought to invite company — her brother, Cuzzy, for instance, who was a professor of geology in Arizona and sent her regular shipments of remaindered hardback mysteries to read — but she never did. The artificial tree she’d been using for the past few years was a crummy one from Rite Aid, and, looking at it now, she felt embarrassed. It sat in the corner on a small table she’d draped with red felt.
“Perhaps we should take it down,” she said. “Brooklyn, you’ll help pack the ornaments. We’ll wrap them up. You need to be careful, though. These are glass. Some are very old. This Santa, for instance.”
They removed and packed some of the ornaments until the food arrived, then ate in silence. Nick got up and fiddled with the stereo. The one CD Alice owned, a Django Reinhardt compilation, was still in there from his last visit. The sinuous opening notes of “Nuages” entered the room, the clarinet like a human voice, Django’s guitar chunking quietly in the background. She remembered a particular restaurant in Paris, in the 12th arrondissement, with a black-and-white-tiled floor. She’d had a wonderful pavé de boeuf there.
“Wait a second, OK?” Nick took a portable DVD player out of one of the bags he’d brought. “Brooke, come on, let’s get you something to watch. I’ve got Dora.”
“Oh,” Alice said, “the explorer!”
After he’d set Brooklyn up in the next room, Nick returned to the dining table. Alice could hear the tinny sounds of the cartoon. She felt an impulse to touch Nick, and she put her hand out toward his shoulder. It wasn’t much of a hand: bones and loose skin, the blue veins visible. She drew it back, thought again about why he was here.
“Mom, I was down in the basement. There are rodent droppings.”
“I know,” she said. “I have a man coming. I just need to set some traps.”
“It’s beyond that. The sofa cushions down there are all pulled apart — mice have been nesting in them. The floor is stained with their urine.”
“I’m taking care of it. You don’t need to bother yourself.”
“Upstairs is bad, too. There are droppings in the corners. And the wall under the living-room window is so water damaged it looks like it’s going to collapse. Paint is peeling off the eaves. Your gutters are loose. The roof obviously leaks. I found milk containers in the fridge with expiration dates from six months ago.”
“I bought fresh milk,” she said, “just for your visit.”
“Thank God for that.”
She’d heard the mice rustling in the other room at night. But what was she going to do? She never saw them, or almost never. They kept to the hidden places; she kept to the central thoroughfares. They had learned to accommodate each other. “I have a call in to a cleaning service. It’s fine.”
“What about the letter? It looks important.”
“It’s not. Leave it alone.” Alice gave him her hardest look. “I’m going to excuse myself for a moment now. Brooklyn,” she called, “there’s chocolate cake for dessert.”
“I don’t like cake,” Brooklyn shouted from the other room.
Alice got up and went to the girl. “How about gifts?” she asked.
The girl turned away from the screen, her eyes lit up as Alice had known they would be.
“Grandma will come back in a few minutes, and then, gifts.”
Outside, Alice smoked, and her thoughts drifted. She could burn the letter, say she never received it. Better not to think about it. She watched the smoke rise toward the porch light in beautiful swirls.
When she returned, Nick and Brooklyn were sitting at the dining-room table together. “Problem with the video,” Nick said to Alice. “Can you entertain her while I go down to check on the car?”
“Sure. Come back soon, and we’ll have cake,” said Alice. “It’s for your birthday.”
“My birthday was in April.”
“I know that. I didn’t see you in April, did I?”
He stood looking at her for a second or two. Then he said simply, “OK.”
Alice went over to the Christmas tree. “Look at this,” she said, cupping an ornament. It was one of her favorites, an old-fashioned blown-glass clown, its paint wearing off. “Grandma had this as a child.”
“I like the bird,” Brooklyn said, taking it down.
“So do I. It’s a peacock. It’s yours.”
“It has pretty feathers.” The girl reached for another ornament, a purple cluster of grapes, but it slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor, where it exploded with a tiny pop.
“Oh, no,” said Brooklyn. “An accident.”
“I’ll clean it up,” said Alice. “Just be careful where you step.” She got the dustpan and brush from the kitchen and swept up the broken glass. She felt dizzy but was determined not to show it. “Let’s keep working,” she said. “We’ll take them all down. These are all for you.”
Alice got out some tissue paper, and they carefully wrapped the ornaments, nestling them into three shoe boxes. When Nick returned, he hovered as they finished.
“Let’s not forget the cake,” Alice said.
“But I don’t like cake,” said Brooklyn.
Nick carried the girl off to bed, and Alice took the opportunity to step outside again. The neighbors across the road had taken down a tree the other day, and where it had stood were now logs of various sizes waiting to be hauled away or chopped into firewood. Alice tried but couldn’t remember what the tree had looked like when it was standing. Fireflies punctuated the darkness. What must those neighbors think of her — the old lady across the way with her deteriorating house, occasionally leaving the premises in a taxi, no one ever visiting, no cars ever in the drive? She was a ghost already, or nearly. An icy sensation swept through her. What would happen to it all? Her china? Her pots and pans? Her many cookbooks? Her certificate from Le Cordon Bleu?
She came inside and sat down at the dining table. Its dark surface reminded her of lake water. After a while Nick joined her. “I think she’ll sleep well,” he said. “Long day.”
Alice recalled floating on a boat somewhere, fishing with her father. That was decades ago, in Pennsylvania. She remembered the lake, but not its name.
“What does the doctor say?” Nick asked.
Alice saw something of Cuzzy’s features in Nick’s face — the deep-set eyes, the broad cheekbones — but not her own. “I have to get my weight up to help me get through the next round, but everything is going fine. I see him this week. I’ve ordered a wig.”
“He’s having you do another round of chemo?”
“Of course he is.”
“Mom, do you have a will?”
“Yes, I have a will.”
“Where is it?”
“Someplace safe.” She sensed his intensity, his concern. He’d sided with her after the divorce, had more or less cut ties with his father. It had been understood that what was hers would someday be Nick’s. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m fine. It’s just spots.”
“I’ve looked this up on the Internet. Spots on other organs is Stage IV. Have you talked with the doctor about stages?”
“I’m following my doctor’s advice. I like him. He’s very good.” Greenbaum wore a bow tie, which she found interestingly anachronistic. She kept expecting water to shoot out of its center. She had never once asked him a single question.
“He says you’re strong enough to resume treatment?”
“Yes.” She tried to sound plucky, though in fact she felt very tired. “I just need to eat well and keep my weight up.”
“You didn’t have more than a bite or two of your chicken lo mein.”
“I plan to have some later. A midnight snack.”
“You’re really strong enough?”
“I already told you. We’re preparing for the next round. Everything is fine.”
“There is information out there,” said Nick. “Timelines.”
“I know that.”
“I’m sorry about the ornament.”
“You’ll want to be careful hanging them. And always keep them wrapped when you put them away.”
“I’m nice to you, don’t you think?”
“Well, sure,” he said.
Alice lay in her bed staring into the darkness, not sleeping, not exactly awake, but rather adrift in the twilight state that had become so familiar. Midnight came, and with it the rain. It had been weeks since it had last rained. She could smell the trees. They were opening their veins and welcoming the infusion. The ground, cracked and dry, drank in the water and relaxed. When she looked again at the clock, it was 1 AM. Then, seemingly moments later, it was 2 AM. She got up, had a smoke, and read a few pages of the Melville biography she’d been working her way through, but her glasses were smudged and her eyes hurt, so she put it down. What a life Melville had led: South Sea islands, celebrity as a writer, then a public decline as each new book was less popular than the previous, to the point where people thought he’d gone crazy. And then his disappearance from the world as he became a customs inspector, roaming the dockyards of New York City.
Outside, the rain continued to fall in hissing sheets, sometimes letting up for a while, only to return with more ferocity. No one should have ever let her be in charge. She didn’t know the first thing about bills, about parenting. She and Richard had tried for years to have a child, with no luck. By the time Alice became pregnant, they were already leading separate lives. Perhaps it had been a kind of trade: their life for Nick’s. She hadn’t enjoyed being a mother, not really. It had seemed a series of phases to get through: Nick as a bawling child, then later as a mostly silent and resentful youth. She loved him — of course she did — but sometimes she wanted to explain to him that he had stolen much of her adult life. At least now he’d finally found some purchase on his own adulthood, albeit late in the day, with his wife and child and job. Good for him.
Suddenly there was a little girl in her room. At least she thought so. In the dark it was hard to tell.
It occurred to her that perhaps this was how it would come. Quietly, in the form of a little girl. She would offer her hand, and that would be it. Sayonara. See you later. All she wrote. She squinted. “Yes?”
“I have to go.” Brooklyn was in a nightgown, one fist bunched at her crotch.
“Oh. All right.”
Alice swung her feet over the edge of the bed, put on her robe, and led her granddaughter down the hall to the bathroom.
“I’m scared,” Brooklyn said. “Come in with me.”
Alice watched over her as she peed, then helped her wash her hands. The array of lights on the vanity reminded Alice of the entrance to a fun house. Two bulbs were out, and one had an irregular flicker that seemed almost menacing.
Brooklyn picked up a wrapped bar of scented soap and put it to her nose, then placed it back on the sink. Alice looked at her. What hair children had! Alice thought of the lock of Kafka’s hair she still kept in an envelope in the dining room.
“Have you always lived here?” asked Brooklyn.
“Not always,” said Alice. “I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a town where they struck oil.”
“Now, let’s get you back to bed.”
She walked the girl back to the spare room, where Brooklyn got onto the cot and pulled her stuffed hedgehog to her. Alice stepped quietly out of the room and closed the door. She retrieved the letter from under the jar of peanuts and carried it into the kitchen, where she pulled open the bad drawer — which was stuffed nearly to capacity and slid out awkwardly — and put it in. Then she took her customary position at the table and lit a cigarette. Above her the clock hummed; outside, rain continued to fall. Soon she’d be by herself again, and she looked forward to that. The police officer had been there just yesterday. Or had it been last week? This was still her house. She’d have someone come look at the roof. At least the car was being taken care of, at long last. The old milk could be thrown out, and she’d underlined the names of exterminators in the Yellow Pages. She just wished she had more of an appetite.