Published in the Gettysburg Review and Prize Stories the O. Henry Awards.
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Alice propped herself, and balanced her box of stationery against her knees. She opened her pen, held sheets of stationery against the top of the box with her thumb, and wrote:
Your first letter at college from your old mother, and you see, no more ‘Freddie.” I expect by now you are pleasantly ensconced in your dormitory and have a few classes under your belt. I am ensconced in my suite her at the hospital. Not quite a suite, but a private room, which is elegant for me. Doctor Meyers insisted, and so I thought I would go ahead and be grand this time around.
The day after you left, I packed my cooking whiskey under my robe and slippers, and moved in, but they’d no sooner gotten my clothes off me than I realized I had half a pack of Winstons in my handbag to last me God knows how long. Well, I’ve been in and out of hospitals enough to know better than to ask the nurses, so I asked one of the nurses aides if she wouldn’t get me a carton, and I would give her a dollar for her trouble She was looking reluctant, hoping for another dollar no doubt, and you know I was feeling a little devil-may-care, so I just offered her a drink of whiskey, and that made her stand right up. She’s a great big black woman, and she said, “Do you have whiskey in here? Oh my. Where you hiding it?” And she rooted up in the closet until she found it (behind the wig and its little stand). I told her it wasn’t expensive whiskey, but she said, “Whiskey’s whiskey and good enough for me. Unless you’re drinking it all the time.” I told her I just had my one good jolt every evening, and she said, “Well then, I’ll join you. Yes, I will. I like a little something before I go off. Sounds very nice to me, Thank you.”
The next day, she brought the Winstons and wouldn’t hear of taking my extra dollar. She poured a glass right up to the top and took a gulp and sat down on the bed and passed the glass and there we were. Now she comes every day. Flora. She’s as nice as can be, and she does the bartending so she can be sure there’s enough to go around. Well, you can see that I’ve arranged myself to my best advantage. I only worry that we may run out of whiskey, since Doctor Meyers won’t tell me how long I’m in for this time. But I’m sure if an emergency arises, Flora will do another bit of smuggling. She doesn’t seem worried about getting in trouble, and we’re very peaceable. Fortunately she didn’t carry out her threat to bring in a couple of men on her day off.
And aside from Flora’s welcome attentions, the doctors come on and off all day, armies of them, to pinch and poke me, and of course tell me nothing. Maybe it’s just Henry Meyers showing off how important he’s gotten, but even so I feel exotic when I don’t feel like a laboratory frog.
Also, the girls from the shop have come, my nice Martha several times. She says the boss is having all sorts of trouble finding someone to fill in properly until I get back. I don’t know how the world got on without me all those years I didn’t work. Your Aunt Susan called up from Washington and said she might be up to see me, which I thought was odd until she told me she was trying to stay away from some Major or other. She’s always good company. Simon McGruder came yesterday. You remember meeting him again this summer He even manages to make me feel a little sexy, heaven forbid. I haven’t a clue about how he knew I was in the hospital or where he’d come from, but I didn’t ask. At my stage of the game, you take your beaux where you find them.
Finally, you’ll be pleased to hear that your gang all came in to see me yesterday when Mr. McGruder was on his way out. Terry and Peter and a friend of Terry’s whom I don’t remember. And Terry brought his girl, Patty, which I thought wasn’t in the best of taste since you liked her first, but I forgave him because he is so nice to me, and besides Patty looks a little fat in the fanny these days. They’re all starting their schools some time this week. I think they were looking for a little sympathy from me so I gave them that. I even would have offered a little cooking whiskey to soothe over the end of the summer, but I thought they might have been embarrassed and preferred beer. I told them I expected them to all raise hell and enjoy themselves without wrecking the cars or getting thrown out. That seemed to cheer them up a little bit, and they told tales on you to get you in trouble and I pretended to be horrified. When the nurse chased them out at the end of visiting hours, Terry said they’d come and see me again over their Thanksgiving vacation. I certainly hope it isn’t here that they’ll have to come see me.
That’s my news for the time being. I realize letter writing is frowned on in college, as it was in boarding school, but if you ever are overtaken by the lunatic urge, indulge me. By the way, Flora tells me she has a lovely niece who would be just right for you. I don’t discourage her, but I have my doubts.
Alice folded the letter and put it in an envelope and addressed it. She closed her eyes to her discomfort, screwed on the top of the pen, and slid the Crane’s box and the letter away from her on the bed, then let her knees down and lay back and was still.
Alice was used to hurting. That was one of the things she was good at. She sat with it until it was too much, then she buzzed the nurse.
“Here I am, Mrs. Dillen.”
She couldn’t speak.
Henry Meyers had gotten her onto a good floor. They kept an eye out for her. She was lucky to have Henry Meyers. The nurse swabbed her arm, and Alice felt the coolness, and then the quick needle.
“A couple of the girls brought in some mysteries for you, Mrs. Dillen. We’ve got them down at the station.”
And when the nurse came back with the books, Alice was better. She could push herself up and brighten. She had probably read all the books, but she would read them again. This was an attractive young nurse. She was sweet and Alice was fond of her. Alice smiled at the thoughtfulness of the books. She would have liked to squeeze the nurse’s hand. It didn’t seem such an odd impulse. She wasn’t embarrassed of her silence in the pain. You lose embarrassment after a point. Now she was better.
“Flora left this one for you. She asked me to bring it in especially.”
“Oh my goodness. Did I miss Flora? I didn’t realize I had slept so long. Isn’t that silly?”
“No, it’s still too early for Flora to be off. She left the mystery for you this morning. I’ll stack them all on the table. Would you like one now?”
“Let’s see what treasure Flora brought me. Nightgown For Murder. Just what the doctor ordered. You go ahead now. I’m fine. And thank all the girls on the station for me.”
The book was the usual off the rack. The cover showed a redhead sprawled on a rumpled bed, boobies about to pour out of a black nightgown, a dagger through the hem of the nightgown.
Alice used to have a good bosom. For years after she and Vic were married, Vic wouldn’t let her wear a thing to bed. Three years ago she’d had the right one taken off, but by then of course she and Vic were apart, and didn’t do anything anymore anyway.
When she was little, Alice wore flannel nighties in winter, cotton in summer.
And slippers with pompons, year around.
Her father was a doctor, and if he came home late from the hospital, she liked to wait up for him in her nightie and slippers. If she had to go to bed, she put her slippers beside the bed and stayed awake to hear him, and if he was not too late he came up to give her a kiss good night and a hug. If he was very late, then her mother would tell him not to go up because Alice needed the sleep.
On the nights when he did come up to kiss her, Alice pretended to be asleep as soon as the footsteps of his big shoes opened the door. She was very still as he tiptoed across the room and leaned to kiss her. She loved his smell, part from the hospital and part from him. Then as soon as he kissed her, she put her arms around his neck and hugged him. On nights when it was too late, she listened to the peepers and worried that summer would be over soon. Once when it was so late she must have woken from sleep, Alice heard his car outside, and then her mother’s heels on the floor in the hall. And Alice wanted her father to come up no matter how late it was. It was too late, and Alice thought about him coming up and didn’t think about them turning and going into the living room, which they always did, and her father said. “Well, I’m just going to peek in.” His steps came up the stairs, and Alice heard her mother whisper something from below, but her father said, “Shh” and came to the door.
Alice whispered “I’m awake,” but she didn’t dare say it loud enough for him to hear outside the door. As he opened the door, she whispered it again, “I’m awake,” and he came in and came over to the bed quietly and she held out her arms to hug him before he even got down to kiss her. When she had her face against his neck she started crying, and she tried to whisper that she wasn’t crying because anything was wrong, but she couldn’t say it. She didn’t want her father to think she wasn’t glad he came in.
Of course Freddie would not need to be kissed as Alice had had to be. That would have been too easy for a mother. She went up every night just the same to hear his prayers and tuck him in, and to kiss him whether he needed it or not. And she managed usually to look in on him later, hoping that he might call out to her, but not really expecting. He was not a boy who called out for love. Boys would be different, and she told herself that. If she asked him for a hug, he always gave it to her, as long as she remembered not to ask for it in front of other boys or anything as foolish as that. But he never did come first with a hug, and those are the things a mother lives with. Maybe he already understood about Vic, that long before Alice understood.
It didn’t seem long at all before someone else looked in the door. Alice thought it would be Flora, and smiled and tried to put her hand on Flora’s book. But it was the same pleasant nurse.
To say that Susan was here.
“That’s fine, Nurse. I’m awake.”
And when Susan came in, Alice felt as she always did. Susan was getting older and fatter, but she had it, and would have it until the day she died, and the men knew it instantly. Alice had never had it like that. Not at all now. Now she was too tired, and knew why Susan was here.
Susan came and put her purse down on the bed and leaned over Alice and put her cheek to Alice’s cheek and pressed against Alice, and Alice tried find her own arms to hug back. Alice cried. Susan cried.
It was like Susan to know, and when Susan knew, it was final, even in the part of Alice that was still embarrassed by Susan.
Fifteen years ago when Susan, out of the blue, said Vic drank too much, then it was true. And it was true, which was what she was really saying, that Vic would always drink too much.
Eight years ago, she told Vic to his face that he was a failure, and Alice hadn’t known that he was, not really. She had hated Susan for telling Vic in his own house, but Vic was already falling apart and Susan had seen it, and Alice had to realize that she wouldn’t have time, or a proper home, for Freddie anymore.
It was then that Alice and Vic began to plan for boarding school.
And the summer before he was to go off to school, the summer he turned twelve, it was off to camp as well.
For boarding school, they all drove up together on a Saturday in mid-September, with the Scotch cooler for a picnic beside the road. Vic was in a tweed sport coat and proud to be taking his son to school, and they all laughed and somehow it seemed just as it should have been, and Alice foolishly said that and infuriated Vic.
They stayed at the good motel in Concord, and Alice could pick out the other families that were there to bring their boys to school. And those families could pick them out, she knew. It was hot when they arrived, and Vic wanted to take a nap in his shorts, and Alice suggested Freddie do the same. Freddie was shy about himself; she would not have made him, but he did take off his clothes and lie down on the motel cot, and he looked thin, and still so little a boy. So much different from Vic, but so different too from her baby. She hardly saw him without his clothes anymore, and suddenly she wanted to hold him to her bosom again. She was ashamed, or would have been ashamed to tell. He was wearing the new undershorts she’d gotten for him for school, boxer shorts like his father wore instead of the children’s jockey underwear. She asked him if he didn’t like his new shorts, if they didn’t make him feel a little older and more like his father, and he said, “Yes, Mother,” and lay with his eyes open until it was time to go to dinner. At dinner Vic had his martinis and was funny and Alice and Freddie both laughed, but Alice knew the signs.
The next morning they settled Freddie into his alcove at school with thirty other boys on every side, and there was so little settling-in to do that it was done in no time. Alice wanted to shake Freddie and make him see her, see his mother before she left, but he might as well have already been gone. At the car, when she hugged him, and kissed him, he stood with his hands at his sides. She held back her own tears, and got into the car and said good-bye to him. As they drove off she watched him stand and wave, and his face wanted to cry and she thought he might, but then he turned away and went into his dormitory among the other boys and she lost him. And as soon as they got outside the grounds, Vic wanted to have lunch and a drink before they started back.
Three years ago, when Alice had her breast taken off, Susan came to the hospital. To say good-bye, Alice was sure. There was nothing else to be revealed then. Vic was long past the first woman, past the psychiatrists and Payne Whitney and Hartford and the drying-out farms in Vermont. Freddie was out of Susan’s reach. Freddie was a different generation and immune. But Alice was still afraid of dying then. Forty-one. It hadn’t seemed possible. Yet there was Susan.
Except on that visit, Susan was only telling Alice to get ready, and so Alice had gotten ready, had determined to last until Freddie went away to college. Now Freddie was in college, and Susan was back.
When Alice woke, Susan was gone. There was a doctor at the door, leaving, and Alice said, “Hello.” He stopped and looked back and smiled, a tall, fine looking young man. Even in her drowsiness, his smile made Alice feel embarrassed of her hair and her appearance. She made herself cheerier and she said, “I’m awake now, ready to be pushed and pulled and pinched and poked.”
“Not today,” he said. “Doctor Meyers just asked me to look in.”
In a couple of years Freddie would be a man like that. She smiled and said, “I thought maybe I’d worn out all the other doctors and you were the reinforcements.”
“Oh, I was in before, with Doctor Meyers. We just decided to give you a day off today.”
“I didn’t remember you. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that even the patients got days off.”
Sex had been the hardest. She had loved sex. Everything about it, even laughing about it. When they’re drinking there isn’t much sex. She’d learned that, but it hadn’t made her any less jealous, and it hadn’t prepared her for never ever having a man in bed again. Doctor Meyers told her that it was necessary to bring in other doctors, so she had to say what the hell and take her shirt off for all those men to see her with half a chest. Young men like this one who smiled and went. She told herself that they were all doctors, but she wanted to say out loud that she’d had big, handsome bosoms, and not so long ago.
In the first year that Freddie came home for the whole summer, rather than just for the two weeks before camp, the apartment was filled with sex. He was teaching tennis and he was learning about girls, and she was jealous of him. He would come home sweaty from his teaching, and take showers while she had her cocktail after her own day’s work. If it had been a girl, probably Alice would have been more jealous, but it would have been more familiar; she could have nodded at it. With a boy it was so different; she almost could smell it. And he took such long showers. He’d be in the shower for twenty minutes. There would be steam and the noise of the water and simply the sense of him in there.
On one afternoon he called the shop to ask if he could stay late at the club and play tennis after work, so Alice went out for a drink with Martha. It was a Saturday and they had two instead of one, and laughed and snorted like a couple of gals off the second shift at the factory. They pretended to look at the men, but they both knew they were perfectly safe even if it wasn’t the Pickwick and their friend George behind the bar. Then when she picked up Freddie at the tennis courts, some of his new friends were there and they were laughing and Freddie was going to go out with them all later, and all of them were full of life and of each other. Alice tooted the horn and waved to them and tried to look very gay, but they made her gayness from two drinks with Martha a little pale, and the wind was out of her sails. Freddie, though, was cute with them. He held his own. Alice was pleased to see that. But when he got in the car and they were driving home, he didn’t have anything to say to her, and she had looked forward to his company.
She had told Martha how fun it was to have Freddie to talk to, but he sat in the car spinning his tennis racket and she was irritated. When they got home, he went right into the shower to get ready to go out, and she sat with a drink and wanted to talk with him just for a moment. He took so long in the shower that she knew he wouldn’t have any time to spend with her.
When he came out, he ran back to his room to get into his clothes. He was still thin, but he was almost a man. He had muscles coming into his arms and his chest. Not like some of them, but he was nice looking. The girls would like him. They would like his curly hair, though he was so shy he wouldn’t know it. It dawned on her that he always ran through without any clothes on, as if she was not even there, as if she didn’t count. While he was getting dressed, she had another drink, which really, especially after the Pickwick with Martha, was more than she ordinarily had, though she never put any rules on her cooking whiskey or her smoking, no matter what Henry Meyers said.
Then Freddie was dressed and ready to go. Alice had said he could have the car. She finished her drink. She asked him if he had to take such long showers and he shrugged the way they do. She asked him what he was doing when he was in there that long, and he said he was taking a shower, and shrugged again. She said she’d never known anybody to take showers that long, and she thought he was doing something in there. He asked what she thought he was doing, and she said she thought he was playing with himself.
Oh, God. Then he was horribly offended. He stalked off, and she was horrified herself.
But then it was odd, because once she’d said that, once she’d been a nasty, stinky mother, and thought him a stinky, nasty boy, that seemed to get it out of their systems, and they could be comfortable with each other.
They did dishes together, and there were dirty shirts and underwear and sneakers all over the place, and she let him have beer in the icebox, and it all filled up the little apartment, and Alice, to tell the truth, didn’t mind a bit, though she felt she had to nag about things once in a while, and he would tease her about that. He hid a jockstrap above the visor in the car, and the next time she pulled the visor down, the jockstrap fell into her lap, and she screamed. Which pleased him no end.
He came out with Alice and Martha, and didn’t mind it when she and Martha would have their cocktails and get giggly. What was nicest, maybe hard for him, was that he listened. Aside from Martha, she really had no one, and she needed to talk just to hear herself go on, which you have to do, especially when you’re alone. She didn’t tell him the awful things. She let him understand how differently things had turned out from what she had expected. They joked about the wig; they spoke to the wig when it was on its stand. When she got to be friends with their gang, all of them laughed at that damned wig, which was just the right thing to do. She became the sort of den mother to their gang, and got all the inside scoop, once they’d gotten away with whatever they’d been up to.
This past summer, that gang of Freddie’s threatened Alice with bringing a man and making her come out on a date with them all. The first time they said it, they scared her half to death, and they got a good laugh out of that. Much as she wanted a man, the thought of it now was really more than she could cope with, and it was a relief to recognize that.
Then Simon McGruder showed up for a day in the middle of the summer, out of the blue, in the way he was prone to do, and that got the boys going again. They had come in for some strategy, or to steal beer or something, early on Saturday evening, so they were there when Alice got home from the shop. She hadn’t gone for her drink with Martha because Simon had called her at the shop and asked her out for dinner. She’d come straight home to get ready. She really didn’t think it was a big thing, and she sat for a minute with the boys before taking her shower. She asked them what their plans were, and they made up something or other, and then she said, just so they wouldn’t think she had nothing happening at all, that an old friend had called her up and she was going out too.
Well, the way those boys congratulated her was too sincere and too patronizing not to annoy her. Freddie even asked who “she” was, this old friend of his mother’s. Alice should have known better, but they were all of them so satisfied with themselves that she went ahead and told them that “she” was quite a handsome and prosperous man who had once very much admired Freddie’s mother, before Freddie’s time. Alice arose then, and departed in her grand exit for the shower, and they were stunned, even quiet for a change, and Alice felt quite pleased with herself. As she closed the door they began their hooting.
When she came out, all dressed, they still were there. They were slouched down low in their chairs, and they’d been quiet so she would think they’d left. They all looked at her up from under their eyebrows, Freddie the worst of them. When she told them to go on their way and mind their own business, they didn’t budge. She tried to use her mother’s voice with Freddie to get him moving, but he put on a hangdog look and rolled out his lower lip, and then others took the cue and did the same thing. So she did exactly what they wanted her to do next, and tried to reason with them. “Oh, it’s only Simon McGruder,” she said to Freddie, and Freddie looked at her like a perfect stranger.
He said, “Simon McGruder?” as if it were Burt Lancaster coming to her on his knees. And all the others piped, “Simon McGruder? Simon McGruder?” and sat up in their chairs and gaped at her, and then howled with laughter and pointed at her so that she couldn’t get away with being angry. She would have begun to plead with them, except the doorbell rang with Simon, and so she glared at them and ran down to let him in.
She tried to prepare him. She told him Freddie was there with a few of his friends and they were being a little difficult. She tried to tell what was up, with expressions of her face the way you do, but she could see that the expressions on her face made him think she was having a small stroke. It really wasn’t fair, since she hadn’t seen him for years. There was no way he could be expected to understand their foolishness.
But the boys were all on their best behavior and all stood up while she introduced them, all very respectful. After she’d introduced them, she said, “Freddie and his friends are on their way out for a night on the town. You have a nice night tonight, boys. Drive carefully,” and they all smiled as nicely as they possibly could and sat right back down, except Freddie, who asked if he could fix Simon something to drink. Alice was appalled. But Simon, as comfortable as you please, just said he’d have a bottle of beer like the boys, and Freddie brought it. She’d forgotten what a big man Simon was. Really he was bigger than any of these boys, who thought they were such big shots.
Simon asked them, “Don’t you boys have anything going tonight? Can’t find any women on a Saturday night?”
The boys squirmed, and Alice said, “Now don’t embarrass them, Simon. They’re nice boys. They’re just a little shy with the girls.” Oh, they glared at that.
Freddie, of all people, said, “They’re shy all right, Mr. McGruder, but they’ve been after me for weeks to get them in to talk to Mother. And now you’ve come along and cut them out.” Alice was taken aback by that, but the boys were not; immediately they hung their heads and looked appropriately devastated.
Simon said, “It’s rough. There are only so many beautiful women. You guys will have to make do with the dogs tonight.” There. Well. Wasn’t that nicely put. Alice sat back with composure and looked down her nose at the boys, who grinned at one another through their moans and groans.
At which point Simon said, “But I never hang around if they don’t put out, so maybe you guys will get another chance.”
“Simon,” Alice gasped, and blushed like a beet.
And the poor boys didn’t know what to do.
Until Alice gave in. She went ahead and laughed like an old horse, just as Simon had known she would, and then the boys roared and roared with Alice, and Simon grinned like far more of a hell raiser than those boys. And when the boys stood up to go, Alice could tell that they thought her old boyfriend was cool enough. Before they left they shook his hand and slapped him on the shoulder and wished him luck. Ho, ho.
She and Simon did have fun at dinner. She told him how pleased she was that he’d handled the boys so well He said he’d liked Freddie and liked his friends, and especially liked how much they cared for Alice. Then Alice felt rather proud of herself after a second martini, and told Simon just how well she was doing, how much she did enjoy those kids, and that they did enjoy her, and how good it was having Freddie home for whole summers, and about her job and being on her own and being pretty tough. She bragged, but Simon didn’t mind. He was as glad as she was that she had gotten some spunk and begun to be herself and enjoy herself, after being unhappy so long. Simon was just the same as always. He was always just the same, if a little older, strong and good natured, doing whatever it was in the Midwest that had gotten big enough now that he probably had money coming out his ears. Simon was like her father, though her father had never been rich. Simon had always been like her father, always steady and gentle, which was why she had married Vic, and why she had often wished that she’d married Simon instead.
Here he’d let those boys have it though. He’d done that for her, she knew, and she was touched. And he still had the twinkle in his eye when he told her that this was the first time he’d seen her since she was officially a single woman. He raised his eyebrows and teased her the way he had with the boys, and they both loved it. He asked her about her health, and she had to tell him that she was a wreck. He knew about her bosom, so she didn’t have to tell him that She told him about the radiation and her hair falling out a mile a minute, and they both laughed about the wig, its little stand on the bureau and a name for it and Freddie thinking she’d taken leave of her senses when he first heard her talking to it.
When they got home, Alice leaned over and gave Simon a big smack on the lips and thanked him and lay her head on his shoulder for a minute and then opened her car door and told him she’d just go on up by herself, she was used to it, and he should get started if he had to get into the city He put his arm around her and hugged her – ooh that felt good – but when she started to get out of the car he said he wanted to come up and have one drink and a cup of coffee before he left. He said it with that grin and that twinkle in his eye, so she raised a lascivious eyebrow herself and grinned right back at him and laughed and led him on up. It was early, long before Freddie. It would be quiet, and nice to talk more. She was sorry Freddie had to be gone, because she would like for Simon to really talk with him.
She made some coffee to keep Simon’s eyes open on the drive back and sat down with him on the sofa. He put his arm around her and she slid over and snuggled against him. He was a big, strong man. It had been so long since she had been held by a man.
When she saw he was going to kiss her, Alice said, “Don’t be silly, Simon.” He kissed her anyway, on the lips. He kissed her as if wanted to make love to her, and she kissed back and turned on the sofa to face him and to press against him. He wrapped his arms around her and she pulled her hands against his back, rubbing them against the cotton of his sport coat. She twisted her mouth against his. She tasted him and she felt his tongue and rubbed her face in the wetness of his lips. She lost her breath and more than any other thing she needed to be loved. He squeezed her against him with his hands holding her beside her breasts, and she ran her tongue full into his mouth and began to cry low into his open mouth for her need of him, and then she felt as he squeezed her the hardness against her chest of her own false breast. She turned away from him and pushed herself against the back of the sofa as tightly as she could, and was horrified at herself The cry she had begun in his mouth, of sex and her need, became sobbing. She cried into her hands and held her front turned away from Simon and against the back of the sofa. She held hard and would not let Simon turn her around, and he kissed her gently on her neck and under the hair of her wig and did not speak to her. He had felt it, that plastic breast against hi. He knew about it, now he had felt it. At least he had not touched it with his hands wanting to hold her real breast. She held hard to the sofa until she was too tired to hold any longer and then she begged him, “Please don’t, Simon. Please don’t turn me around.”
He didn’t make her turn around. She had known he wouldn’t. He didn’t say anything. What could he say?
“You go ahead, Simon. I’m fine. Really I am. You go on. You know me. I was always a weeper. The fitter told me I had a handsome breast for a woman my age. Wasn’t that nice? And now my wig is all askew.” For his sake, so he could escape, she made herself sit up and smile and wipe at her eyes. She put a hand up to the wig to settle it and she laughed for him. He wanted to go. She would make it easy for him. “You see how hard it is to keep myself all in one piece? Isn’t it silly? Now you go on. You’ve got such a long drive.”
He kissed her again on the mouth and she let his tongue come into her mouth again, and she tasted him again, and tried to push him away as he leaned against her, and she could not let go of his mouth. He laid her down on the sofa, still with his mouth to hers, and she kept her eyes open and watched his face. He stopped kissing her and opened his eyes, but did not look into her eyes. He looked at the top of her head and took off her wig and put it beside the sofa on the floor and kissed her forehead and then all over her head in the thin hair. She lay very still, and didn’t cry any longer, and kept her hands beside her, but she could not keep away her shortness of breath. She closed her eyes and he began to unbutton her blouse and she wanted to make him not. She held her eyes closed. He had to reach under her to unfasten her, and she would not help him, but he was strong enough to hold her up and reach under and loosen it, and as he held her up and she felt it come loose, she could not keep herself from looking at him again. He looked only at her bosom and laid her back down and she closed her eyes again and he kissed her nipple and she pushed her hands under herself not to hold him there, and then his mouth came away from here there and he kissed all over her empty chest. She could not keep herself from touching him, and she hugged his head to her and she moved him to her nipple again and the tears began to come again, but he would not stay there. He ran his face and his wet mouth over her belly. He undid her skirt and brought that down and her pants and stockings and then he stood up. She watched him undress and wanted to be frightened, wanted to hide herself, wondered if her body still could work for him. She wanted him to hurry. He kneeled over her on the sofa and she opened her legs for him and touched his naked waist and pulled him at her and he moved into her and filled her and she lay back and then quivered and shuddered with him in her He began to move in her and she squeezed her arms and legs around him, and she saw him full of excitement, and full of love for her, full of need for her, need of the sex and everything else. She loved more than she could love. He moved harder in her and she worked with him and she shook and held to him for her life and cried and came to it with him.
“Mrs. Dillen? Mrs. Dillen?
Alice opened her eyes and pushed herself up a little bit She didn’t hurt so much. That was a pleasant surprise. She smiled for the nurse. When she was a girl in the hospital and her father was a doctor she had wanted to be called something older. She had wanted to be called, “Miss.” She had her father tell all the nurses on the floor, but as soon as he left they all said, “Alice,” again, and asked if her father was strict with her. Now when she told them just to call her, “Alice,” they wouldn’t pay attention to that either.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Dillen. You have a phone call and we were going to take a message and not disturb you, but it’s your son, Fred.”
Somebody had told him. He wasn’t supposed to know, and somebody had told him. “Who told him?”
“Told him what, Mrs. Dillen?”
“He wasn’t supposed to find out, and you know that very well. That why he’s calling. I want to know how he found out. Is he on the phone now?”
“Yes he is. I’m sorry Mrs. Dillen. I don’t understand.”
“It’s not your fault. I don’t mean to scream. I suppose I look like hell. All right.” Alice picked up the phone.
“Hi, Mother It’s me.”
“Who told you?”
“Told me what?”
She couldn’t help it. She was livid. “You weren’t supposed to know.”
“Know what? I just called to say hello and ask how you are. I missed you. I thought you might be lonesome.”
That didn’t sound like him, but she could tell he didn’t know. “You don’t know?” She could tell from his voice he didn’t, but now she’d worried him. Oh, spit. Why couldn’t she keep her mouth shut?
“What is it?”
“Oh well, it’s sort of silly, really. You know me.”
“I’m not sure. Am I supposed to?”
“That’s enough of that, Smarty Pants. What I was going to say was that I’ve had all sorts of visitors, and I told all of them how much I missed you. And I didn’t want any of them to let you know that. I didn’t want them to bother you in your first weeks at college. I just told them because I wanted a little sympathy. When people come to visit they’re such a bore with being hearty and pretending you’re not sick. They all seem to think that if they show some sympathy they’ll worry you. Well, I like a little sympathy. And here you knew all by yourself that I was lonely. You see? That’s the nicest thing that could have happened to me today. Well, how is it? What’s the scoop on that college life? Any pretty girls yet? Terry and Peter came to see me, and Terry was with the girl whose name I always forget. Looks awfully bottom heavy. You’re not missing a thing.”
“Those guys came in to see you? Did they break anything?”
“No, they were very nice for a change. I teased Terry about a pimple so he wouldn’t think I was going soft, and otherwise everything was fine. You know they’re always a little subdued when there’s a girl around, even a dull one like what’s-her-name.”
“I don’t know why I was worried. I just felt like calling. Everything’s okay here. You know, it’s kind of new, but there are some nice guys and there’s a pool table and stuff down in the basement, and the classes have started. I’ve been thinking about you.”
“Well, there’s certainly nothing to worry about here. I’m as comfortable as I can be, and Henry Meyers has his eye on me a couple of times a day. I shouldn’t get so upset about the idea of people calling you to tell you I’m lonesome for you, but I know how important these first months are at college. I want you to get a good start and really settle in. You hear me?”
“Uh-huh. Yes, Mother.”
“Don’t, ‘Yes Mother’ me. What good is it being a mother if I can’t nag? You get to those books, you hear me.”
“Uh-huh. Yes, Mother.” There, that sounded just like him.
“What else, while I’ve got you here? Be careful in the car.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“I’ve been thinking maybe I should have one.”
“Let’s not go overboard, thank you. You can just worry about your schooling a little and forget about a car. Terry and Peter were my only visitors who weren’t like company, so I’m delighted you called, and now I want you to get back to your studies before you run up a big telephone bill.”
“I charged it to our home phone.”
“Then you just get off this minute.”
“I’ll write you and tell you what’s happening, over the weekend.”
“Don’t hurt yourself. I know pencil and paper can be painful. Bye, bye.”
“Bye, Mother. I love you.”
She listened to the hesitation and then the click, and bit her lip to keep from calling after him.
“I know who you’ve been talking to. That was young Freddie himself. Nurses told me. Oh my, you look tired. Is he already asking for the car and the big allowance?”
“Flora Thank goodness. Let’s have a dink. I need one.”
“I’m so tired, Flora. And I hurt.”
“I’ll call the nurses. They’re playing magnetic checkers. They don’t know how to play worth beans.”
“Make us a drink, Flora. And I want us to have two tonight.”
“I don’t think you look tough enough for two.”
“I wish I were as tough as you, Flora. I was afraid someone told him. He never calls. It’s all I can do to get him to write one letter a year, and that sounds like it’s come from a stranger.
“Who’s telling what?”
“He was worried that I was lonesome.”
“Sounds like a fine boy, Mrs. Dillen, but I’ve got some bad news. My niece Michelle went bowling with the halfback last night, and there were stars in her eyes when she came home. I’m afraid there’s no hope now, even if Freddie was a football player. I’ve been trying, but after a while they don’t listen.”
“I thought it was the quarterback.”
“Heavens no. The quarterback is ugly as sin and interested elsewhere.”
“That’s the last time I’ll talk to him. I was good. He didn’t know; I’m sure of that.”
“You’re not drinking your drink.”
“The last couple of months it hurt so much sometimes, and then I’d get so dopey with the medicine, but he never knew. I got him off to school and I thought that was it. He left for his college with everything all right and with a real home and that was so important. But there he was on the phone, and I was afraid someone had told him, and then when he said he didn’t know, I wished that he did. I wanted him to come and be with me. I wanted to tell him I needed him. But I’d tried so hard through the end of the summer that I couldn’t. I’m so tired. I might have cried. I might have told him how much it hurt. And if he got here he’d see me. I pretended all I could at the end of the summer. I don’t want him to have to see. I was good on the phone. I teased him. I said good-bye, and he said, ‘Bye, Mother. I love you,’ and I don’t know when he’s said that last. They don’t say that at his age, not to us, do they. He went off to see some nice guys. I bit my lip to keep from telling him not to hang up. I listened until the line went dead. Will he be all right, Flora?”
“He’ll be fine. You let me see that lip. Open up. You’ve cut it. That’s what that foolishness was good for.”
“I hurt so much, Flora. Make me another jolt of that cooking whiskey.”
“You haven’t touched what you’ve got. You want me to make the next one in the ashtray?”
Alice closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of her house on Hunting Ridge Road, to Flora’s footsteps through the rooms and to mice in the walls. It was autumn, and field mice were coming back into the old walls for winter. She began a letter to Freddie without pen and paper, and that seemed enough.
I suppose I might as well tell you.
Then she realized what she had forgotten to write, and she began again from the beginning.
I suppose I might as well tell you, because if you don’t already know, then you must think I’ve lost my mind. No need to comment, thank you. What I have to say is important, and I want you to pay attention.
Though in fact the really important think doesn’t involve my health or sanity one way or the other. What I want you to remember is something different. That’s right, and I don’t care where you’re supposed to be or who’s waiting. You can sit up straight and stop jigging. I’m still your mother.
It makes the world go around, and don’t you ever forget.
Alice opened her eyes and saw Flora’s hand on the bed. She took the hand in her own and said, “Is that all right?”
“Nobody tried to steal it yet, except the cocker spaniel some people had.”
“I wish I’d told him Flora. I wish I had him.”
“You’ll settle for Flora. It could be worse.”
“I need a man. Oh God, I need a man.”
“You just squeeze on that hand and we’ll get by. I got a tough old hand, and we’ll get by.”
Alice rolled on her side and tried to curl her legs up and the hurting was so much that she let it go, and snuggled to be near her father and that felt much better. She squeezed against him until she hardly could breathe, and made him hold her to make her feel better, and every time she breathed in she could smell him just come from the hospital. He loved her and held her and he was her father and she was his baby girl and she could do what she pleased but she would stay here for now.
She held her own baby and felt his naked softness and pressed him so gently against her breasts. She was strong and young and full of love and a baby was such joy. She was a woman and this was her baby and life was a wonder. Each of them would be this much a joy. She knew it was so, and knew nothing could ever be like holding this first one, to her nipple until it wasn’t hungry and slept for the first time in her breasts. She was a mother. She would have more milk than she needed. He breasts were sore with it. And she was sore between her legs. And she was full everywhere with life and joy, and she cared nothing for the soreness.
When Vic was finished, she was sore. When Simon was finished. She chose Simon. She made him stay with her when they were done. He would have gotten up, but he didn’t mind staying. She laughed and made him put his leg over her to keep her warm, and he didn’t mind. He wrapped her up in his big arms and with his leg, and laughed at her snugging to him. She made him happy. She did that, when he did everything for her she ever could want. What else was there? It made the world go around. They made it go around. And it still went, crazy as it seemed. When she tickled a finger between the cheeks of his bottom, he growled in fun deep in his throat, and she giggled.