She never says what she doesn’t mean. Yet people always ask,
“Are you sure?” when she has agreed to do something. Yes, she thinks, I’m sure.
Or I wouldn’t have said anything. But she smiles. And if she
doesn’t want to do something, she just says so. “I’m sorry, I don’t pick people
up at the airport anymore. But you’re welcome to come here for a drink after
you arrive.” She has a very well-stocked bar, possibly from working for a
liquor importer for so many years. Or maybe just because.
She and her employers celebrated Repeal Day every year at an elegant country club overlooking the bay. A joyous day indeed when Prohibition was
finally repealed, they say. Really, she thinks as she lifts her
glass in a toast, has there ever been a more ridiculous law? After all, you
want to celebrate with a drink when things are good, or drink away your sorrows
when things are bad. It’s human nature. Her nature, however, is not a curious
one, so she has never even thought to ask her boss if the firm bootlegged in
those dark days.
When she turned forty, she blew out the candles on her cake
and told her husband that she was moving into the guest room. As far as she was concerned, reaching
this milestone in life entitled her to a break from wifely duties, or at least
that particular one, which she had never enjoyed, despite his heartfelt
efforts. She had already moved her things and was planning to buy new sheets.
She took the icing-smeared candles from the cake,
placing them beside her slice of cake with satisfaction. It wasn't necessary to make a wish that year.
She thoroughly enjoyed having her own bed. At first, she had
a monastic single bed, high off the tiled floor, but soon discovered there was
not enough room for books, magazines, her glasses, and other things like that.
She traded in the single bed for a double, and, like Goldilocks, found it just
right. She could read as late as she liked, and her books didn’t snore or toss
and turn. Her husband remained adrift in the now enormous California King in
their former bedroom, no more or less lonely than he had been when she slept beside
If there is nothing to say, she stays silent. She feels no
need to rush in and fill the silence. She finds silence restful, and is
completely comfortable with her own thoughts and her own company. Oddly, her
silence tends to make others uncomfortable, but she is unaware of this, and
assumes that their chattering to fill the empty conversational spaces is their
own foible or weakness. She rarely wonders what
other people think or why they are the way they are. She is not curious and
wishes others were the same, if she ever stops to think about it.
Her mother was flighty. She probably shouldn’t have married,
but that’s what women did in the early decades of the twentieth century, and if
they were as pretty as Fay was, they got married young. They were supposed to
settle down, not cut their hair and skirts short, and wear lipstick. They were
not supposed to drive fast and roll back the rugs in the double parlor, turn up
the radio, and dance on the exposed boards in high heeled shoes late until the neighbors complained. Fay did what
she wanted, not what was expected of her.
Careless of small town gossip, Fay found herself in divorce
court. Her mousy husband had had enough of her wild ways. He looked at his soon to be ex-wife across the courtroom, and couldn’t
help admiring her loveliness, even now. Fay gave him a wink, and he turned
away. “Next time, I must find someone more serious to marry,” he thought. The judge
banged the gavel and just like that, Fay was free to seek her next
adventure. “See ya, Toots!” she
called gaily to her ex-husband as she dashed from the courtroom to freedom.
Fay thought nothing of hitch-hiking with her daughter. Even
though the whole town knew what a flibbertigibbet Fay was, a girl belonged with
her mother. Especially a girl getting to be “that” age. Fay never had much
trouble getting rides. She often told her friends that the movies stole her
idea for the hitch-hiking scene in “It Happened One Night”. “I’ve been doing
that for years!” she exclaimed the first time she saw the movie. “They should
be paying me royalties, I tell you!” Maybe, she thought, she should be in
movies. She was pretty enough. Surely.
Anna hated hitchhiking with her mother, but there was
nothing she could do about it. There was nothing she could do about most things,
she found, and sometimes, waiting in the cold by the side of the road, she’d
promise herself that when she grew up, she’d do exactly what she wanted. No-one
would tell her what to do or wear or think. And she’d have her
own car. She wouldn’t rely on a man for anything. She would only rely on
herself. She herself, she decided, was the only person she could really trust.
It was a cold night, and both Fay and Anna were glad when
the big sedan stopped for them. As usual, Anna climbed in the back, and Fay
slid in beside the driver with a flirtatious smile. He smiled back and the big, heavy car
turned back onto the dark road, the headlamps lighting the trees at the side.
The car stopped, and Anna realized that her mother and the driver had gotten
into a fight. “Run, Anna!” Fay cried out. “Run as fast as you can!” For once,
Anna obeyed, scrambling into the dark woods. It seemed safer there.
Anna waited, wrapping her navy blue car coat around her slim
body. She wished she had a sweater on, and shivered in the cold of the
night. She listened, but didn’t hear anything. She wondered how long she’d have
to wait there for her mother. It seemed like hours, but was really minutes,
when she heard Fay’s voice call her name. Anna went toward the voice. For once,
Fay sounded small and scared, not bright and confident as usual. Fay’s hand
grabbed Anna’s coat sleeve. It was shaking hard enough to make Anna tremble
“Mama?” Anna asked tentatively. Fay’s perfectly coiffed
curls were a rat’s nest. Her stockings were torn, and there were two buttons
missing from her jacket. Her skirt seemed to be on backwards. Her hat and gloves
seemed to have vanished, but she was clutching her purse in the hand that
wasn’t clutching Anna’s sleeve. “I’m fine,” she answered, letting go of Anna’s
sleeve to brush her hair with her fingers. She shook back her curls, took a
deep breath, and straightened her skirt. “Let’s go,” she said,
heading back to the road.
Anna learned to drive before she was even of legal age. She
was determined to have the freedom, and to her mind, it was safer to drive
herself than let anyone else drive her. She scrimped and saved wherever she
could, making sure to hide the money from Fay, who had been known to “borrow”
it when she wanted to buy a new hat or some lipstick or a few drinks. Fay couldn’t drive and
didn’t want to. She thought that was something men should do. She couldn’t
understand why Anna wanted to. Anna didn’t care.
Fay promised her daughter that she’d pay for her to go to
secretarial college. “You should learn how to do something besides drive,” she
said one morning. She was sitting at her dressing table in a lacy negligee,
“putting on her face”, as she called it. This required the utmost attention.
Anna loved to watch her mother put on make-up, becoming lovelier with each
expert stroke of a brush. Fay took her beauty seriously. “After all, “ she said,
carefully applying mascara to her long lashes, “you’re nothing to look at. You
need something to fall back on.”
Anna applied to secretarial college. She imagined wearing
neat, tailored suits like Joan Crawford, and high-heeled shoes, which would
clack as efficiently as her typewriter. She already had the glasses. She had
decided on a red covered steno pad for taking shorthand notes, and a fountain
pen with black ink. Black ink, she thought, would look more efficient than
blue. She imagined herself perched on a little stool, taking notes as quickly
as her faceless boss could dictate them, the epitome of efficiency. He’d wonder
how he managed before Anna appeared in the office, an angel of competence.
“I got in!” Anna cried, waving her acceptance letter as she
ran through the house. “What on earth are you talking about?” Fay asked
crossly, plucking an imaginary hair from her faultlessly groomed brow. Was that
a wrinkle? Maybe it was just the light. Or a shadow. She tilted her head. “College,
mama. Remember?” Anna said breathlessly, plopping onto Fay’s unmade bed. Fay
felt that there was no point in making beds. They’d just get messed up again.
This also applied to dishes.
“College? No,” Fay murmured, lighting a cigarette. It really
was a wrinkle. Was it?
Honestly, Anna just wouldn’t shut up, Fay thought. She just
kept rattling on about the same boring thing. Didn’t she have anything else to
do? Finally, she turned to Anna and said simply, “I don’t have the money.”
“What do you mean?” Anna asked, aghast. “You promised. You
“Well, I meant to, dear. But I just couldn’t save the money
Anna knew how it was, all right. Gauzy stockings that ran
after a single wearing; a new pair of red shoes; parties.
Why waste money on something silly like your daughter’s education?
Anna couldn’t ask her father for money. For one thing,
neither she nor Fay knew where he was. The last gift he gave Fay was his
signature on the divorce papers. The last gift he gave Anna was a pat on the
head and a mumbled “See ya, kiddo” as he walked down the echoing hallway
of the courthouse. She still remembered the sunlight streaming through the windows as he walked away from her forever, putting his hat on his head as he
faced the future and left the past in the dust motes tumbling in the summer
In the end, it was Fay’s sister Myrtle who came to Anna’s
rescue. Myrtle had always disapproved of her younger sister, so flighty and
flirty. Myrtle felt that you should work for what you got, not slide by on
looks and charm the way Fay did. At least Anna didn't take after her mother. Thanks to sensible Aunt Myrtle, Anna went to
secretarial college and did very well, though her head was always full of
dreams of the future. Dreaming of the future, she found, was the best way to
deal with the present. One of these days...
Fay didn’t make it to Anna’s graduation. “Oh, darling, I
have a date,” she drawled. “Would you be a dear
and hand me that dress?” Anna handed it to her and walked away while Fay was
asking her to button up the back. She had already put her mother behind her.
Now she’d have a new life. She’d see her mother on
holidays, and other than that, Fay could fend for herself in the big old house.
Fay had kept the house after the divorce, though that was about all the
housekeeping she ever did.
Anna felt free. She had moved to a new city, to her mother’s
surprise and consternation. Fay couldn’t understand why Anna would want to
leave her alone and helpless in that big, empty house. She certainly didn’t
have time to clean and dust fifteen rooms by herself. Anna, she decided, was
extremely ungrateful. “I gave her the best years of my life, “ she complained
to her sister Myrtle. “That’s about all you did give her, “ retorted Myrtle,
who refused to feel sorry for her sister. “You’ll never understand, “ said
Anna. “You don’t have children.”
Anna got married by a judge with a witness brought in from
the courthouse hallway. Courthouses, it seemed, would play an important part in her life. She wore a navy blue dress, a corsage, and shoes more sensible than
in her Joan Crawford flavored daydreams. Life had not turned out to be like a movie, or at least not like a movie
Anna would want to see. But her new husband was handsome, and with a
spark of mischief that offset Anna’s own sensible nature. He never met his
mother-in-law, and Anna liked it that way.
Anna and Joe moved to another city, far from her
childhood home. Their new home was sunny and warm, and it never snowed there.
Joe bought her a modest house with an atrium, something she marveled at.
Imagine having the middle of your house open to the sky! Their bedroom had
sliding glass doors leading to a patio, and the yard backed onto a steep hill,
so no-one would ever live any closer than they already did. From the balcony
off the living room, Anna could watch the sunset, martini in hand, and think
how far she’d come.
Anna assumed that she and Joe would have children one day, But as the years went on, it didn’t
happen, and eventually Anna had to admit to herself that she was glad. Even as
a child herself, she’d had to take care of her mother, and she felt she’d had
enough caretaking to last the rest of her life. She had grown to rely only on
herself, to nurture her independence, and even Joe couldn’t break through all
the barriers she had built up over the years. Eventually, he stopped trying and
she stopped noticing.
Anna and Joe worked different hours and in different parts
of the city. Joe would often go to the bar with his colleagues after work,
driving home up the hilly streets with insouciance after a few drinks. By the time he got home, Anna had already eaten dinner and
was reading or watching television. Joe would make his own dinner, and then
watch television in the den. Anna liked game shows, like “Wheel of Fortune”,
and Joe preferred westerns. Over the years, they became more like roommates
than husband and wife, but it was something they never discussed.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that your mother is dead,”
said the formal voice of the lawyer on the other end of the phone. “Oh,” said
Anna. There was nothing else to say. She wasn’t surprised, nor was she shocked.
She didn’t really feel anything. She told the lawyer that she’d fly there in
the next few days, and that he could make the funeral arrangements in the
meantime. The lawyer was surprised, and he was shocked. He repeated her calm
instructions, and she confirmed them. Anna hung up. It was finally over.
Anna wasn’t afraid to fly. The way she figured it, if the
plane crashed, you were dead, and if it didn’t, you had wasted a lot of time
and energy worrying about it. It was out of her hands, anyway.
She always flew first class. She couldn’t bear being close to other people, and she liked to be comfortable. As
she settled into her seat, she thought wryly that it was Fay coming out in her
otherwise sensible self. Fay was in her somewhere, no matter how she tried to
deny it, and always would be.
The house was frightening. Fay had ended up living on the
ground floor as she aged, leaving the rest of the house to go to rack and ruin.
Anna found windows stuck open on the second and third floors. In the kitchen,
you could see through the holes into the basement. The wallpaper was peeling
from the walls in places, and certain things were missing, such as the Tiffany
lamp. Later Fay’s nurse said that Fay had given it to her, along with several
other valuables. Maybe she had. The lawyer said there was nothing Anna could
Anna had finally cleaned out the house she had grown up in,
the house where her mother had laughed and danced as a flirtatious young
beauty, where her parents had been in love and then stopped. Anna took one more
walk through the echoing rooms, past the marble fireplaces and bay windows,
listening to her footsteps on the old wooden floors. She had learned to walk here,
she thought, and now she was walking away. She turned away and closed the front door gently, and
turned the key for the last time, putting the past behind her once and for all.