Pru Silowicz has listed me on her CV (not that I would have known what that was, if she hadn’t told me in plain English) as the recipient of her “Volunteer activity: Interacting with older community member needing help.” This CV situation has them thinking all the time—really thinking hard, like Nixon in his last days at the White House. She showed the piece of paper to me proudly, the way Edith, my next-door neighbor back in the day, used to post her son’s crayon drawings of the family, even when her husband was identified as “Fat Dad Frank.”
Who knows what my own husband, Donny, would have made of it, if he’d lived to see the way the world changed.
Pru usually comes on Tuesday afternoon after lunch, though recently she’s been rearranging the time—calling on her cell phone, shouting over hectic background noise. I can only hope she isn’t calling while driving. She’s a nice girl. She’s rather ordinary looking, with her eyes, predictably, her nicest feature. She will be 21 in September. Last year she made her own birthday cake, as she tells me she’s done for years, so she can have exactly what she wants. In this case, a slightly lopsided cake that almost made me faint when she cut into it: mahogany red layers of “red velvet cake” with a gooey marshmallow frosting that looked like a caterpillar tent.
My best friend, Edith, now lives in an assisted living facility. (Facility automatically follows assisted living. You would not, for example, say, “She lives in assisted-living limbo.”) Anyway, Edith met her when Pru and some of her sorority sisters went visiting with their dogs to cheer the ladies. It was assumed that a pet, staring a lady right in the eye, would both engage her and also make her feel in command, since the dog would eventually deferentially drop its eyes. The pets gave the ladies the opportunity to touch fur again—even if it wasn’t a beloved fur coat now probably moldering in some great-niece’s closet—without being spat on by PETA. For some reason Edith didn’t understand, they’d also brought an assortment of barrettes and headbands in case anyone wanted them. When one of the dogs jumped for a headband and tried to run away with it—minimalist Frisbee!—everyone almost died laughing. Truth be told, Edith was more taken with that particular dog than with the visitors, but only Pru and one other girl returned the following week, without their dogs (Pru’s had been borrowed), and then Edith, being Edith, decided on her favorite among the girls and had a private word with Pru to ask if she could use a little extra income doing some errands and helping out at the home of an old friend (me).
Today Pru will be bringing another sorority sister with her—the reason being not what I at first suspected (dumping me; introducing me to her replacement), but still something to cause wariness: the girl’s mother is an Avon salesperson whose house may soon be in foreclosure. Like Lady Macbeth, I feel that all the perfume in Arabia—all her perfume sales, that is—could not alter her situation, but because Pru greatly esteems reciprocity, I will accompany Pru and her friend Carrie to a coffee shop where the mother will be waiting to pounce. I will buy a few Avon products to help out.
Pru comes into the house in her usual rush. She always has a topic, the way people at war always move forward with a weapon. She earnestly wants to know what I think of double-dating. Does it more or less ensure that the couples will swap partners “somewhere down the line?” (This is one of Pru’s favorite expressions; she often uses it when discussing a potential romantic relationship). I tell her honestly that although it was common for groups of people to go out together in my youth, I never double-dated.
She says: “What would be something a group of people did back then?”
“Well, in the summertime there were always musicians down by the Tidal Basin who got together and played, never for money, they would have been mortified by such a thought, but often someone would have found out that so-and-so was going to be playing his banjo that night, and someone else’s visiting cousin would turn out to be a good singer, so we’d pack a picnic and go sit by the water and listen to them play. Almost everyone knew the same songs, and people would just chime in if they knew the words, or someone might bring out his harmonica.”
“Got it. And you weren’t afraid of getting mugged, right? And you didn’t make sandwiches with mayonnaise because it would spoil and poison you.”
She has integrated these important life lessons. I wonder if she also knows that Napoleon was said to have lost Waterloo because of his painful hemorrhoids, but decide against asking. I do like to tease her, though. “I would take my parasol, of course. And swirl it three times ’round to signal my best friend if I liked the boy I was sitting next to.”
“Really?” she squeals.
“No,” I say. “Don’t make yourself miserable thinking life was easier. It was always complicated.”
“My grandfather bought my grandmother a heart-shaped aquamarine ring and wrote her a poem to propose, but she burst into tears because she was in love with his brother. As an example of something that was complicated, I mean,” she says. “Tic Tac?”
“No, thank you,” I say. All flavors of Tic Tac are so intense they could bore a hole in my tongue. “But she married your grandfather anyway?”
“No. She married his older brother, who gave her a ruby ring made of rose gold.”
“Wasn’t that a little awkward for everyone involved?”
“He enlisted in the Army and never came back. Like that old song—the Boston guy on the MTA? You know that song, right?”
Damned if I’ll tell her I do. “Faintly,” I say.
“Riding forever, or whatever,” she says.
At my request, she has taken down the bowls from the top shelf of a cabinet where I can’t reach them and put them on the counter. Nowadays, it’s usual for people to have all sorts of mundane things sitting around, so I’ll just leave the bowls on the kitchen counter. Pru folds the step stool and puts it back behind the kitchen door. Now I am to be taken to a coffee shop to meet the destitute Avon lady. Apparently her husband left her and their daughter and also gave her an STD. (This had to be explained to me. Not the concept, but the abbreviation.)
“I used to make coffee in a percolator,” I tell her. “It was delicious, we thought. But now coffee tastes like a fine wine. Some things do improve.”
“Thanks for meeting her,” Pru says. “Coffee’s on me. And don’t feel like you have to buy hydrating skin masks or anything really expensive to try to save her from the poorhouse. Just if there might be something you could really use, like blush or lipstick.”
“I don’t think my purchases can solve her problems, Pru.”
“Bonding with women—it’s got to help, right?”
“What is helped if two women turn out to like each other?”
“Well, I mean—” (I’ve thrown her.) “It’s a sisterhood and everything. You don’t feel alone. It’s like, somebody shares with you and you share with them and you’re friends. So everything has got to be a little better, right?”
“What can friendship matter if you’re being put out of your house?”
“I know. Her only backup plan if the bank takes it is to go live with her sister-in-law in Buffalo and work the night shift at the drugstore, because the sister-in-law has some connection to a druggist, or something. Talk about being confused about what to do when you get out of college—imagine having to start over, with your kid, in some really cold place, and you didn’t get an education because you quit school when you got pregnant and you just couldn’t hack anthropology anymore, and then you had the baby and it had colic. The sister-in-law has a husband, but they’re estranged, so I guess she might move into her house.”
“It’s a terrible situation, but at least the woman has somewhere to go.”
“She does, but if she meets a guy—what? She has to tell him she’s got this STD? Most guys never call again.”
“First things first, Pru. First she has to get to Buffalo, then she has to settle in and get a job. If she’s selling Avon products, maybe she can do the same thing in Buffalo. She doesn’t have to think about men right away.”
“She’s definitely not going to sell the blush there,” Pru says. “Who needs it, when the wind chill is 10 below?”
“You have a good sense of humor. That’s always an asset.”
“Right, like I can be a standup comic or something if I never get a job. They all turn out to be bipolar.”
This time I laugh out loud. “Is this your way of telling me you have a medical problem?”
“Jeez, no, except for menstrual cramps that make me feel like I’m constantly trying to pry stuck lids off jars. I pop Midol like Tic Tacs.”
“Pru, you’re going to do fine. I know these sad stories people tell you affect you more than you let on. It’s a good deed to introduce me to the woman, and you’ve spent the morning doing good deeds at my house, and goodness still does get rewarded. You’re going to graduate and find your way in the world.”
“I appreciate your optimism,” she says.
“Tell me her name again?”
“Allison, but to be honest, she had this awakening experience, so she’s going to ask you to call her Bonobo.”
I look at her questioningly.
“Right. Well, there was some chimp that got discovered—really; this isn’t a joke—and it turned out to be a new species, or something, and it got its name because Belgian people who discovered it called it Bonobo, which they thought meant chimp in Zaire. Except that they got the wrong word. So—you know.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Just wait for Allison to ask you to call her Bonobo. She can explain it.”
“In my experience, it’s usually a sign that people are troubled when they assign themselves nicknames or change their name as an adult.”
“My dad called me Sugar Diaper, but that wasn’t exactly a nickname you’d want anybody to know about. He used to call me Sugar, and my first word was diaper.”
“Can’t be too careful these days.”
“No, like, can you imagine?”
“I do a lot of imagining when I’m with you, Pru. You live in a world that would be completely closed to me.”
“Yeah, well, three twirls of the umbrella if you two really hit it off,” she says, pulling into the parking lot and nosing into a parking place, turning off the ignition.
Bonobo—could I have expected otherwise?—is a strange woman. She is quite thin except for sturdy shoulders, which she must consider a good feature because she is wearing a tube top, a silver necklace dangling a palm tree and a tiny monkey with its hands over its eyes (I have to lean in to see; my close-up vision is bad; my long-distance vision perfectly fine), and her makeup is lovely: sheer foundation; glistening, ever so slightly coral lips; mascara and a little subtly applied eye shadow that accentuates her blue eyes. She tells me to call her Bonobo. She does not explain; she spells the name, so I understand. Her daughter, Carrie, shakes my hand formally. Her backpack is enormous and seems to have a life of its own. For a second, I wonder if two tiny animals are fighting inside, so many things continue to shift when she lowers it onto an empty chair. Pru knows the young woman working behind the counter, so, she has already informed me, there will be a 50 percent discount on four decafs.
“Maybe the girls could sit at that table, and you and I could have a few moments to talk privately?” Bonobo says. “Not that I want to pressure you at all. Pru said you were interested in a beauty update, though, and I do have a few items that are quite easy to use that I can show you.”
I half expect her to pull out a banana.
“Decafs all around?” Pru asks. “We’ll bring them back, and you can put in your own cream and sugar from that counter over there. Okay?”
We nod. Both girls immediately walk to the counter, looking at the pastries in front of them and laughing as if the muffins and slices of cake have merrily animated themselves for a special show inside the glass case. Bonobo leans toward me. She says, “I don’t have anywhere to turn. You don’t even know me, but I assume Pru filled you in, and that you know my life is a wreck and these cosmetics might as well be lint in my pocket for all the good they’re going to do me. But I’m certainly not asking you to co-sign a loan so my house isn’t auctioned off.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“Pru says you have soul. It’s the first thing she told me. Not just some old lady, somebody with soul. We can be honest. You are old, and I am a middle-aged failure. Pru is my favorite of Carrie’s friends. Pru has soul. She thinks if you buy a lipstick and a bottle of perfume, I’m helped. I’m not. There are two private investigators failing every day to find my husband. I drove past your house last night. It’s perfectly located for an Avon presentation. So what I’m wondering is if I could borrow your house for an afternoon?”
“I don’t see how I could refuse.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“I wouldn’t mind. I can invite a few friends. I know some people who are still mobile.”
“I knew you had good karma the minute you walked in. Isn’t it cute how the roles are reversed and they’re buying us coffee and trying to make everything better? Doesn’t it make you feel more optimistic about the future?”
“Obama more so,” I say.
The girls bring our coffee. It is not until Bonobo stands up that I see she is wearing blowsy chef’s pants made of fabric printed with chile peppers. She has on pink flip-flops and a woven ankle bracelet. None of this goes with her makeup. She and I walk to the counter where the milk and sugar are. Her hand shakes as she adds milk to her coffee. The sides of her hair are combed, but the back is a tangled mess. I am not even sure how something like that could be untangled. As I pour 2 percent milk into my coffee, I think of my husband, and how very many years he has been gone. Gone meaning dead, not enlisted in the Army or being sought by investigators for collection of child-support payments. Gone meaning he’ll never know about the proliferation of coffee shops, or the collapse of the financial system, or that we have our first African-American president, or that his wife has turned gray (me—not Michelle Obama) and that every time she sticks out her tongue privately, it’s because her life often leaves a bitter taste, which is her most tactile sense of the 21st century.
“Bonobo is an unusual name,” I say, as we resettle ourselves.
“Scientists found a chimp with a skull much smaller than usual and realized they’d discovered a new species,” she says. “Ironically, they named it the wrong thing because of a misunderstanding. So I like both qualities: small head; wrong identity. That’s me.” She sips her coffee. “Do you have a nickname?” she asks.
“Pookie,” I say.
“Pookie,” she repeats. “A childhood nickname?”
“My late husband’s name for me,” I say. Lying is easy. Which reminds me: didn’t some poet write that “dying is easy?” It wasn’t, in my husband’s case: first came kidney dialysis, then a stroke.
“Do friends call you Pookie?” she asks.
“My minister does,” I say, although I do not have a minister.
The potential for inventing a whole new self is beginning to interest me. The girls have returned to the counter and are in a huddle with their friend. Bizarre music, a flute rising above beating drums as people chant, plays loudly on the sound system. Today is a sunny, summer day in Alexandria, Virginia. I, Pookie, am going to open my house so that a near stranger can sell Avon cosmetics there. I take a sip of coffee. It feels like drinking a big shrug. It occurs to me that maybe this is a version of what happened to her—to Bonobo. She conjured up one lie, her marriage, then she conjured up another, the ongoing ability to afford their house payments. Aren’t they all necessary stories that one tells oneself: Wall Street stories (until they change); Oprah stories?
“I have to be honest and say that I prefer Opi products because of the names,” I say. “A nail polish called MacArthur Park After Dark! Opi nail polish and whatever pianist is playing at the Carlyle are the last expressions of wit in our society. In my life, wit has disappeared, and the byproduct is irony.”
She frowns. She has to like me, even if I’m stranger than she realized: there’s my house; her future.
“When will you hold your gathering?” I ask.
“Forgive me for asking, but exactly . . .” She looks at me intently. “What age are you?” she asks, her voice teetering on reverence.
“Eighty, and proud of it,” I say, reverting to honesty. “And you?”
“Forty-two. I don’t want to take advantage, in any way. You don’t mind my hosting this event at your house?”
“Not a bit, though I’m afraid I don’t see how it can help much.”
“I suspect you’re right,” she says, “though I’d feel better knowing that I did absolutely everything I could. You know how good that feels, when you’re sure you tried every last thing.”
I certainly do. At 80, your life becomes nothing but improvisation, whether you want it to or not. You’ll do the craziest things, desperate to triumph in something as ordinary as changing a light bulb.
“Tell me your darkest secrets, and I’ll tell you mine,” I hear myself blurting out. It is a line from “The Gypsy” at Glen Echo Amusement Park, where my husband and I used to go in the summer. The Gypsy was a life-size plaster figure who sat in a glass cubicle and sorted cards with her chipped fingers. You activated her by pushing a button, and she asked one of three things. Donny and I almost died laughing over “Tell me your darkest secrets, and I’ll tell you mine.” But she never kept her part of the bargain. Whatever you replied, she’d laugh and put her cards down, then look upward as if receiving inspiration, then move her broken fingers over the deck of cards and pretend to select one just for you. She’d send the card out to you in the retractable tray. They were playing cards, but the back was imprinted with your special message—the equivalent of today’s ubiquitous whatever.”
“Darkest secrets?” Bonobo says.
“We’ll have a bond. We’ll have the same sort of secrets the girls share—secrets that bind us forever.”
She fingers her necklace and frowns. Just as I’m about to explain the in-joke to her, she says, “I killed the neighbor’s cat. The cat pounced on a blue jay and I ran for the shovel and ran out into the yard, and the cat turned toward me and made a little leap into the air, and the bird hobbled off—it couldn’t fly—and before I knew it, the shovel made contact, and the cat went flying. There were signs all over the neighborhood the next day. I thought I’d be found out because I’d managed to get the blue jay into a box and I’d taken it to the vet. I drove like a bat out of hell, but all they did was euthanize it. I went home and dug a hole and buried the cat. I thought somebody at the vet’s would tell somebody else about the bird, and figured that would lead to everyone knowing I’d killed the cat, but that was years ago, and my neighbor still says hello every time we run into each other.”
The dance music has reached a crescendo. Two men and a woman in high heels, wearing a power suit (I know what these are now), stand in line for coffee. The girls are sitting at a table, sipping decaf. I am thinking about the one worst thing I ever did, not sure what that would be, when a man in a ski mask bursts into the store and yells at us to drop to the floor. At first I think it must be a joke—this is a coffee shop, not a bank. It isn’t even a Starbucks. A small decaf costs a dollar. “Get down! Now!” he shouts. “Cash. Hurry up,” he says to the girl behind the counter. The stainless steel steamer continues to hiss. Whoever stands behind it has as much protection as someone at the Alamo, but still a female voice screams. She is the only one who does. The girl behind the counter reaches for the plastic bag that the man with the gun is handing over the counter. She opens the cash register and it rings—an antique cash resister; of course it rings! The man points his gun at the drawer, frightening the girl, causing her to stumble backwards. She recovers and steps forward, snatching up money.
Bonobo has tugged so long on my arm that—to my amazement—I am kneeling on the floor. I can’t think of the last time I knelt. The floor is very cold and hard. What exactly is the worst thing I ever did in my life? Next to me, Bonobo grits her teeth and fingers her necklace, as if each dangling charm is a sore tooth. Her other hand remains clamped on my arm. The woman in the suit, missing one of her high heels, lies sprawled on her stomach. One man lies on his side with his legs drawn up, his hands covering his face. The other man lies on his stomach, his head closer to the woman’s buttocks than it could have been in his wildest dreams. I look right at Mr. Ski Mask, and he looks at me, and it seems from the look in his eyes that he is posing a question. A thought pops into my head: the time I rammed my husband’s Chevy into a tree, after his secretary called to tell me they’d been having an affair. I just marched out the kitchen door—he was sitting in the living room, but I had nothing to say to him—I snatched up the keys and marched out and started the car, drove it to the end of the driveway, looked both ways, then drove it into a tree. Not one second of that incident ever became even slightly amusing to either of us, though suddenly it does strike me as funny. Or maybe I’m just congratulating myself for having a little gumption—always better than tears—and doing exactly what I felt like doing. I envy that former self and her spontaneity; as you get older, spontaneity disappears as an option.
“Oh god, oh god,” Bonobo’s tremulous voice wails over and over—though why she is so upset, I can’t understand. The man has run from the store. Sirens? Can’t we expect to hear sirens? The counter girl is talking on her cell phone. Our girls—Pru isn’t mine, but it more or less feels that way—dash out from under their table. I look up just as Pru misjudges her distance from the top and bangs her head, hard. She lets out a yelp. My knee is cut, but not badly—though the Coumadin makes me bruise easily, so I can imagine what it will look like in a few hours. One of the men who’d been waiting to order is staring at a knife with several blades protruding in different directions—examining it closely, as if it hadn’t been in his pocket all along, but has magically appeared. He really stares at the knife, as everyone else fumbles forward, groping for one another like first-timers at a square dance.
Not with that music! That’s no square dance music.
I am going to have quite the story to tell Edith about how her nice young friend took me out for coffee and a man with a gun came in and robbed the store. But what I don’t anticipate is the rest of it: that Bonobo and Carrie will return to my house with me, so concerned are they that I might suffer bad aftereffects (They call this potential trauma PTSD). Pru’s mother will call and demand to speak to me; then, inexplicably, she will cry and stop just short of accusing me of leading her daughter into disaster.
That night in bed, it comes to me: I never had to tell. Donny’s transgression and the car mashed into the tree and my moment of revenge slip back into the past like a body tucking itself under covers in a dark room where all is quiet again.
Go to sleep, I tell myself. The pain in your knee is fate, coming up behind you. A madman whacking you with a hatchet? Every fairy tale tells you he will get his comeuppance. The gunman will be arrested. The Avon party will be a success, but more important, Bonobo’s husband will return and beg her forgiveness; Pru will be accepted at her first choice for graduate school. In the darkness of my room, I walk in the forest and gradually realize that each tree is a beautiful lady. I am looking for a specific one, though. I walk in deeper, as the place I came from vanishes. Something stops me. One tree has a design on the tree bark: a heart with my husband’s initials inside, along with those of his lady friend. I suppose that as long as there are people, they will stop to carve their initials, along with their beloved’s, into bark, oblivious to the passage of time and to the way those initials are sure to fade as they expand, changing from letters into abstract marks, joining the confluence of the wood. I almost pass by, but then, by instinct, I narrow my eyes and grab a low-lying branch and twist hard. Then I reach up and break a higher one, my hand scrambling through the limbs. Each bone of the lovely lady that breaks, breaks separately, because we were young, and every moment was distinct.
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