The King Alfreds

Carole called this afternoon. She asked if I'd go to the ballet. She finally has a subscription and no one in her family will go with her. She'll pick me up, but I will have to drive in. She can't stand the maniacs on the road.

I know Carole won't come into the house and I know Phillip will watch her drive up. She avoids Phillip ever since George, her husband, came over and asked Phillip not to move the stone wall that stands between our properties. George and Carole buried both their Irish setters by it. Phillip pulled out the new survey that showed his property going beyond the wall into "land George shouldn't think is his anymore." George couldn't claim it, said Phillip, by using their two dogs as an excuse. And my husband had the stone wall moved. Now, fifteen feet of grass and two dead dogs are on our side of the stone wall.

I walk out of the house into a cold May evening. Spring is late this year, the dogwoods are just coming out. It will probably be a brilliant fall.

I wait for Carole to finish beating her car mat against the corner of the garage.

Carole hasn't lost her looks or the blonde in her hair. We both worry about our calcium. I eat cottage cheese and sardines. She takes Tums, three rolls a day. She doesn't smoke or drink coffee or eat any processed meat. She likes her champagne with a splash of raspberry vodka and she's wearing the black cashmere coat we flipped a quarter for at last month's St. Anthony's rummage sale.

She straightens up after putting back the mat and says, "I still miss the King Alfreds."

Carole is remembering the daffodils. It took us a week of afternoons to plant them. We laid the bulbs in five tight rows along the path leading to the playhouse. They came up stronger every May for fifteen years. When the new well needed to be dug, an underground spring was disturbed and it flooded the whole area where the daffodils grew.

I back Carole's Suburban to the front. I can't stop myself from looking toward the house and seeing Phillip sitting in his chair by the windows.

Last night, Phillip told me I was irrelevant to him. We stood a few feet apart by the stairs to the attic and he said, "Katherine. Don't you understand? You are irrelevant to me."

It takes only a few minutes to leave our country lane and be on the parkway going south. Carole unfastens her seat belt and says, "I don't want to get wrinkled."

I glance over to her as she begins to play with her hair. She'll take a strand and begin twirling it around her finger, using the twisted end, like a paintbrush, to dot her lips. She looks out the side window. "My mother had rosebushes. I wanted to dig them up from her yard and plant them where our tennis court used to be, but that cheap, miserable bastard sold them. She had a bush of blue ones. Roses don't smell anymore. They've strained the smell right out."

"Roses take so much time. I've tried covering them, not covering them. It doesn't seem to matter," I reply.

"Her roses grew from May to November? There were roses on the table at Thanksgiving. Funny, I just remembered that."

"We always had a bowl of fruit on the table for Thanksgiving."

"She made the best apple pies. She'd have the kids pick the apples off the ground. She'd make six, seven pies. They'd be gone in two days. I asked her to give me the recipe. She'd say, 'Watch me.' I never was in the kitchen long enough to watch."

I thought of my own mother and all of the questions left unanswered.

"I'd have her out to the house in Shelter Island. She wouldn't be there two days when she'd say, 'Take me to the fruit stand. I want to get those peaches to make your father a pie.' A pie! When I saw the bastard take the bedpost and beat her with it. He kept it unscrewed and ready."

"Did she ever fight him back?" I ask.

Carole laughs. "Are you still hoping I'll say yes? I walked in on them once. He had her right on the kitchen table. He was mean. Mean. I'd ask him for a nickel to buy a Good Humor. You know what he'd say? 'Go earn it.' I was five years old. The only thing he ever gave me was a radio for my graduation and he bought it at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. And she had to die before him. He left everything, the house, the apartment buildings, everything to the archdiocese. He really thought it would get him to heaven. May his soul rot in hell."

"Rita Simmons died."

"I know. Finally," Carole says
"They say she went down to sixty pounds. You could see her heart."

"That's not possible," Carole says.

"Yes. They say you could see it beating."

"Promise me, Katie. If I ever get that way, leave me off somewhere in the desert. Give me a sun reflector and tell me to just keep walking, that you'll pick me up real soon. Rita held on too long. There's a point where you've got to say, okay, that's enough. Thank you. Goodbye."

When is enough enough? Rita was president of the Garden Club. There were eleven of us. We'd pile into two station wagons and go planting around statues. Carole and I are the only ones left. Everyone else has moved away. Rita's husband was transferred to Keene, New Hampshire.

"I have to tell you the latest," Carole says. "I get a call from a dealer this morning. There's a show at the County Center. He tells me he's got what my husband wants. George has been looking for a BB gun like the one he had when he was twelve. His mother made him sell it. He got four dollars for it. Now, this dealer, how many years later? Has one just like it. In its original box, tissue paper, the whole thing. But now, of course, it's five hundred dollars. Today is George's birthday. Funny, he gets his wish on his birthday. He buys the gun, brings it home. By now he's had a few. I'm in the library, polishing the porridge bowl where I keep the gummi bears and I see him standing in the doorway, pointing the gun at me. He says, 'Let me just blow away that beaver. It's not doing me any good.' I tell him, 'Go ahead,'" and she laughs. "If only he knew where the beaver was last night, how wet and wild it was. I really cannot stand him. We did nothing for his birthday. I wanted to go to the Kittle House for brunch but he was out buying a gun. None of the kids showed up. Their father's sixty-fifth birthday. Can you imagine? I'll blow it away. It's not doing me any good." And she laughs.

"One of these days he might just do it."

"George? You know what he said to me? 'If I'd killed you when we still lived in Scarsdale I'd be out by now.' He's funny." She laughs. "Katie, what do I have? Maybe another five good years? As soon as we sell the house, I'm out. I'll get a house in Westport, on the water, close to town, where I can walk to everything. I can take the train to the city. I've had it with the driving."

"I thought you were going to Florida?"

"No. The whole state is one big air conditioner. I told you Frank is buying a house in Captiva. I'll make him open all the windows when I visit. It was so convenient having him so close by. Now? I'm really going to miss him. He says I'm like a river."

I wonder why they call it the Saw Mill River Parkway? There had to have been a river here. Once. Large enough to have a saw-mill on it. Where did it go?

"Frank is the same age as George. Incredible. George can't get it up anymore. It's the drinking. It's sad. George was so good. Once. Still, not like Frank. It's also the genes. George's father left before George was born, so God knows what he was like. Frank's father is ninety and they have to restrain him in the nursing home."

I think how lucky Carole is that her parents died quickly. It wasn't very quick for my mother. But then she was with me and I held her when she died.

"The only problem with Frank is he repeats himself. He forgets and I don't want to tell him, 'Frank, I've heard this.' Listen, as long as he fucks me the way he does, I don't care. I put a smile on my face and say, 'Oh, Frank, what an interesting story.' He's a great cook, too. George remembers everything, when he's sober, which is not a lot of the time, and he can't get it up. Frank remembers close to nothing and can go on for days. Wouldn't it be great if I could splice them together and throw away what's not working?"

"With Phillip it's a mystery."

"Well, Katie, while you're trying to figure that one out, climb down those attic stairs of yours and join the world. Find yourself a man. All I have to do is put it out to one of Frank's brothers and you're in."

"I don't want that."

"I know. You want love. I was in Barnes & Noble the other day. I was looking through some books and I read something. It said, 'Love is something you don't have and you give it to someone who doesn't want it."

"That's not true."

"Why are you holding on? Are you waiting for him to say, 'Katie, you're the best thing that's ever happened to me?' He's never going to say it. Get over it. He's incapable of it. Leave him."

"I am."

"Right. You'll be up in that attic of yours for a while yet. You've made it too cozy. And you won't let go. You keep your mother's ashes by your bed, for God's sake. And where would you go?"

"I'm going to U.C. Berkeley."

"To do what?"

"I am going to get a degree in archaeology."

"Being with one dead man is not enough for you? You haven't said anything to me about this. When did you decide this?"

"Last night."

"Last night? You're not serious. You're not going to do this. Anyway you're too old."

"I'm not. I'm doing it."

"It's too late to apply."

"I'm applying to the summer session. I'll be enrolled by fall."

"When are you leaving?"

"At the end of May."

"No you're not."

"I am."

Carole and I sit still watching the New York City Ballet perform Sleeping Beauty. A bar of dark chocolate rests in my lap. I try not to let the rustle of the thin foil be heard as I give Carole and myself a piece.

Carole leans over and whispers, "Isn't it magical?"