February 27, 2013
Alice would come shortly. Sandra waited in the breakfast room, wiping her fingerprints off the laptop, her crumbs off the table. She had chosen slacks because it was not quite warm yet and her legs were pale, freckled with brown.
The blog was Andrea’s idea. A blog for Beatrice and Elvin to read about their grandmother before she grew cotton for brains and peed her pants. No, she did not have Alzheimer’s, she would assure Alice. But she was at the age where anything could happen. Jack was not at that age and it had already happened, and it had happened to many of her acquaintances already. One must be prepared.
The memoir pleased her. She had always written, she would tell Alice, here and there when Andrea was born and Jack was still alive.
The blog did not. An idea from a magazine, surely¾her daughter’s entire life was molded by Women’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens. How to baste a turkey. How to have better sex. How to not feel guilty about being a failure.
She had not been the best mother. But she went to the store and she bought a computer and some young man came who looked at her shoulders, not her face, and set it up in the breakfast room of her condo, where there was a lot of light and where it was far enough from the Steinway that she wouldn’t scoot over and start tapping on the keys instead of the keyboard.
She sat at the table, the laptop humming quietly, nonjudgmental, waiting for the contents of her labor. Beside it sat the yellow-lined notepad filled with her thoughts. A scroll blue and small and wound so tight it could break.
Andrea had tried to talk her through the process on the phone—setting up the account, adding pictures, typing entries and labeling them and organizing archives. She said yes, yes, yes, all the while knowing she would never remember these things. She wished she would die and leave the grandchildren nothing but her money, no stories, no strings. And when she hung up with Andrea, full of assurances that her first post would be forthcoming in hours, days, oh, but soon, she turned away from the friendly little void and played some of Chopin’s etudes, the notes coughing out of her fingers.
Alice would hear her playing the Chopin and be comforted by Sandra’s stature. She imagined Alice would be relieved she was not some crazy widow whose house smelled like coffee and rot. She had posted the ad at the bookstore, the coffee shop. Once a week¾help writing memoirs on computer. Handsome reimbursement. It sounded weak, desperate. A few calls came. A veteran of World War II, a contemporary of her father almost, who had even less computer experience than she. A female science fiction enthusiast and part-time Wiccan. And then Alice.
Alice was young. Her voice was a smooth, melodic voice on the phone, slightly upturned, inquisitive. Insincere. But eager for handsome reimbursement. Alice was working at a bookstore, had an MFA. She would love to help with editing, ghostwriting, humoring an old woman at nine o’clock on Saturday mornings.
Yes, she specified the time. Nine o’clock. She didn’t want some young woman who went out on Friday nights, someone who wouldn’t take her seriously.
Sandra had written two pages but Alice would not be judgmental. A friendly little void, transcribing the contents of her labor. Sandra would play a little Barber, Beethoven, and explain how she had dreamed of being a concert pianist. Alice would understand dreams. Not like Andrea, who never wanted to hear. Alice, hungry for handsome reimbursement, would like music.
Sandra had made a pot of coffee but thought better of it and boiled water for tea, too. She wondered whether she should have worn a skirt.
The rap at the door was soft, hesitant. Not hesitant for handsome reward, perhaps, but for the contents of her labor. But she needed Alice; surely Alice knew that. She was at the age where anything could happen.
Sandra opened the door.
Mrs. Holiday? The girl straightened her glasses with her thumb and forefinger. I’m Alice.
Sandra, please. She held out her hand to Alice. Come in.
Alice ran her fingers through her hair, long, brown, her eyes studying the apartment. A splash of lilies on the table, cinnamon and violet and butter ones, bled into the reflection of window rain beneath them. The rain bled on the Steinway in the corner shadow and the coffee table and the low-light glass frames on the walls and the grandfather clock and Alice wondered how someone could live in a room full of rain.
Would you like something to drink? Sandra moved toward the kitchen. I’m having a coffee. But I also have tea. Please don’t be polite and say you’re not thirsty.
Tea’s fine. Alice looked for a place to drop her bag but felt that the room would repel it, the walls, the furniture slippery with rain. And Sandra, with streaks of rain down her face. Deep riverbeds from cheek to chin. Eyes full of water and blue. Whites so watery that the blues might float away. Silver waves of hair, short, undulating, brushed away from her face.
You have a beautiful home.
I moved here ten years ago when my husband died. Sandra’s eyes measured the water from the teapot into a mug. What would you like? I’ve got lemon zinger and Earl Grey.
Lemon zinger. Alice dipped the teabag into the water. I’m sorry about your husband.
Everyone dies. Sandra poured coffee, black, into a mug. Alice watched the bones of Sandra’s elbows poke at the yolk of her brown turtleneck sweater, her small hips swaddled in her sandy linen slacks.
So. Alice sipped at the water infused with herbs, her tongue afloat in the room of water. She coughed. You want to blog your memoirs?
Yes, my daughter’s idea. Sandra sat in front of the computer, to the left of Alice. She suggested I write them so my grandchildren can enjoy them. They live far away, in Florida. I see them once or twice a year.
Alice nodded. It won’t be any trouble to get you up and running.
My grandchildren won’t find my life interesting. And I’m sure you won’t, either. Sandra sipped at her coffee. But I will pay you well for very little.
Alice filled her mouth with tea. Sandra looked at her, her water and blue eyes moving around Alice’s face and into her own eyes and then her soft mouth. Alice swallowed. She had taught continuing education classes for a time after grad school, found the older adults eager but bashful. Overwhelmed by expression and its evolving modes. They thanked her like immigrants, touching her forearm, bringing her cookies.
You are afraid to ask, so I will tell you. I think thirty dollars an hour is fair. We can meet Saturday mornings at nine. We can get started today. I’ve already written some things down. Sandra pushed the notepad toward Alice.
Have you set up the blog yet? Alice looked at the writing, then at Sandra’s hands, white and growing twisted over the coffee mug.
No. Sandra pushed the new laptop toward Alice. That will be your job.
Alice settled the laptop into her hands. Her own children lived as words in computers, in happy blank boxes like this one. She nursed the baby, waking it up, feeding it with her fingers, and it cooed and purred and a bright happy blog was born. Alice filled her mouth with tea to quench the dry. Outside, it drizzled.
Are you unwell? Sandra’s brow wrinkled.
I have a little cough. Alice turned the computer screen toward Sandra. How do you like what I’ve done so far?
It’s very professional. Sandra nodded, and the wrinkles in her head melted away and she smiled a little. Did you learn this at school?
No. Alice shook her head. Anyone can do this. I’ll show you. You were born in 1940, your notes say?
Yes. My father volunteered for the war and was sent off to Guadalcanal in ‘42, leaving a wife and two children behind. He probably liked that better than being at home. He was killed, and we were destitute. I had two dresses for school. We had no heat and my sister and I slept in the bed with my mother. But this will all be in the memoirs¾you don’t need to be bored twice.
Perhaps I’m overstepping my bounds. Alice looked at Sandra’s. But I will find it hard to work on this project if you are always so gruff.
Sandra’s eyes widened, blinked. Alice’s hands let go of the laptop, felt the floor with her feet.
I’m sorry. Alice shook her head, her face hot. What I meant was, well, every story is meaningful, and for you to denigrate…
Don’t apologize. Sandra’s hand unfurled from the coffee cup and touched Alice’s arm. You’re absolutely right. I don’t have guests often. I forget my manners.
Sandra stood and swept away the coffee cups, clang-clang, into the sink.
The boy who set this up didn’t even look at me. Sandra returned, pushed the laptop, almost too heavy for her hands, into a black leather case. Age makes one invisible. I do not harbor hopes that my memoirs will change this.
Alice clutched her bag. She wondered whether she had enough money for the bus, whether Sandra would pay her by cash or check. Whether she would pay today. Whether she would pay at all.
You look at me. Sandra bent her head toward the living room. That’s something. Come. I’ll play for you before you go.
When Alice came Sandra made tea and served petit fours from the bakery downtown. She served pink and white petit fours in 1968 when she had Jack’s colleagues’ wives over for tea and bridge. Andrea would eat the walls of icing off, leave spongy yellow innards on her play table and blame it on her dolls. She served mint green and chocolate ones in 1972 during Nixon’s inauguration. Jack smoked a cigar and the ashes burned a hole in the carpet. And pink and white in 1986 during Andrea’s baby shower for Beatrice. Yellow and chocolate for when Alice came.
When Alice came, Sandra put out fresh flowers. When Jack died and she moved to the condo, she made tea and served petit fours, bought fresh flowers for visitors. She played Schubert and Mozart for Patricia and Donald and when Donald died she played Gershwin for Patricia. She played Beethoven and Grieg for Jean and Stuart and when they moved to Florida she played Grieg for Anna. When Anna couldn’t come anymore she didn’t play Grieg, either.
When Alice came, Sandra asked what she wanted her to play and Alice said she didn’t care so Sandra played a little Grieg but Sandra seemed to like Beethoven so she played Beethoven.
Jack was a chemist¾he developed household products. Sandra told Alice, drinking her coffee. She could not eat the petit fours now because of the sugar. He patented a chemical that made nail polish dry faster. Of course, he patented other chemicals, but I daresay that was the one we lived the most comfortably from. I wasn’t attracted to Jack, but my family was incredibly poor. I thought I’d become a concert pianist, although I didn’t know exactly how one became one, with my meager resources. We didn’t have a piano at home growing up, but I was always fascinated by the piano at school. The music teacher, Mr. Stanley, gave me lessons, provided I did chores for Mrs. Stanley. She was a sickly woman who stayed in bed a lot. She’s what we’d call bipolar today. But I was quite good.
So what happened? Alice looked up from the laptop. Sandra’s words reflected in her curved glasses. Her hair curled onto her plump cheeks, baby bottoms.
I married Jack. I met him at some mixer at school. He was heading to college, and there I was, ready to go to secretary school. There was a very small chance I’d become a concert pianist. When Jack came around still, after I graduated high school, my mother practically proposed for him. I had wanted to take my chances. I was used to being incredibly poor. Now I’m used to being comfortably rich, and I guess not everyone can say that.
We should upload some pictures¾do you have any pictures I could take home and scan?
I don’t look at my pictures anymore. I’ll have to give them to you next week, unless you want to come pick them up earlier¾you’d be reimbursed for coming.
Well, why don’t you see what you find. Alice picked up a petit four. And then we’ll decide when I can get them.
You’re busy¾I understand. I suppose it’s different these days, women with their careers, lives. Women don’t marry for security now. Do they marry for love?
I don’t know. Alice shook her head, put the petit four back on her plate.
I suppose when the right man comes along. My Andrea said she’d never get married. If marriage is so loveless like yours, she’d always cry to me, I don’t want any part of it. But the right man comes along sometimes. You’ll see.
I’m a lesbian. Alice looked at Sandra.
Oh. Sandra stood up and refilled her coffee. More tea? She smiled; her heart leaped a little. Jack hadn’t known her. He knew her in a way, and she had his daughter, but he hadn’t actually known her. And, she supposed, she hadn’t known him. Although she had tried. Jack lived in his equations, his laboratory notebooks. He sat in his office, his head low, his hand moving along the notebooks. A pencil transformed his thoughts into lead equations, a ticking clock scratching pencil metronome. She could keep time to Jack, play along with him. Mozart, always.
You know, you don’t have to do all this. Alice motioned to the petit fours. I mean, I enjoy it, but I’m hardly worth the effort.
Please. I don’t have many visitors, and I’ve always enjoyed entertaining. White and red and green petit fours, 1967, Christmas Eve “Holiday” party. They had the party at their house every year to play off the joke of their name. Sandra played “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the piano while Jack’s colleague Leroy hung the mistletoe over her head and kissed her neck. She felt his lips through her shoulder, her elbows, her fingers, and she missed a note and everyone laughed and she started over. And Sandra and Leroy started.
Have you always dated women? Sandra looked at her hands. We didn’t know many gay people. It wasn’t something that people were open about back in the day.
Yes, mostly I’ve dated women. But I’d prefer… I hate to answer questions like this because it implies that it’s a choice or that there’s uncertainty involved on my part. For instance, people never ask you if you’ve only loved men.
No, I suppose they don’t. Forgive me. I’m an old woman. I don’t always know what’s polite.
You don’t have to apologize for being curious. And you certainly don’t have to apologize for being sixty-seven. You’re not old at all.
When you’re sixty-seven, you let me know if you feel old. Sandra laughed. Jack ate meat, smoked. They all did. They all smoked so much back then. And drank. Gimlets, rye, martinis. Only the Christians didn’t drink, only on Sundays. They all ate meat and potatoes and smoked and it was no surprise, the doctors said. High cholesterol, risk for heart attack, stroke. Jack took the pills and walked on the treadmill and they quit smoking and started drinking carrot juice and didn’t laugh as loudly but what was the point if you couldn’t. They no longer ate petit fours, white and pink and yellow and green at bridge, no longer smoked and drank gimlets. And Jack still died. But everyone does. She shouldn’t have been, she thought, so surprised.
I dated some men in college. Alice took off her glasses, studied the frames. Sandra’s words disappeared from Alice’s face and Alice’s green eyes Sandra saw. I lived with a woman for five years.
At least you had that. I mean, a love that long. Sometimes you’re never even in love to begin with. Sandra reached for the plate. Please, take these with you. I can’t have them anymore, and I’d hate for them to go to waste.
Alice took the petit-fours. Sandra dabbed the crumbs off Alice’s plate with her finger, touched them to her tongue. She thought about when she and Leroy started. He mixed the martinis at the Christmas party because Jack made a lousy one. Leroy shook her martini in the silver bullet and the clear alcohol streamed out into her glass, her fingers on the stem. Leroy’s pinky brushed the top of her palm as he rinsed out the bullet. He winked. Leroy made Sandra three martinis and then had her on top of the washer. She took her time getting back to the party in case Jack kept track of her comings and goings. She stopped and said goodnight to Andrea, took her little face in her big hands and brought it close. Andrea blinked and smiled, asked if Santa had come. He hasn’t come, Sandra said, stroking her little face, not until everyone is asleep. Andrea asked for Sandra to bring her a petit four, and Sandra said of course, darling. But when she went back to the party, she stood opposite of Leroy, and his eyes, gray and bloodshot, she saw. She forgot.
Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, the short story collections From Here and Close Encounters, and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc 2013). She is the founding editor ofthe literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine awarded a ‘Best of Baltimore’ in 2010. She tweets at https://twitter.com/MichalskiJen.
Adapted from Could You Be With Her Now by Jen Michalski. Copyright © 2013 by Jen Michalski. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.