Posted in Writing
Article details 0 comments
07/14 2014

Untitled – an old story

Alice did not appreciate having the children, again, for the afternoon. It was Saturday, and on Saturdays she met with Estelle and Marilyn for coffee and toast at Humphrey’s, then went to the market. Usually she did, anyway, but here was Tom in the driveway with James and Savannah tumbling out of the backseat of the car, carrying bags of who knows what inside that would certainly clutter up the place. Savannah with two dolls in her hand and a stuffed backpack lurching from side to side off her tiny back, James dragging a massive bag that was certain to contain a video game. Both of them noisy as they day they were born.

She watched them from the living room window and sighed heavily before standing up and taking her coffee cup into the kitchen, wishing she was already dressed. If she had only left early then she wouldn’t be here and Tom couldn’t smile and walk away without so much as a cup of coffee. Alice thought of Estelle who lived with her family but still never seemed to get stuck in this condition, and Marilyn who had no children so never had to manage the wails and ruckus of grandchildren. The doorbell rang and she took another sip of her coffee, watching Tom check his watch, the kids lined up next to him, full of holy terror. She set the cup down and moved toward the door as the bell rang again, sending a bolt of frustration down Alice’s back. When she opened the door she knew she looked upset but Tom, as usual, was unfazed.

“Good Morning Mom!” he began cheerfully as he opened the screen door and motioned for James and Savannah to march through the door. They looked up at her, but didn’t say hello, just strolled on in as though they owned the place.

“Tom” Alice said sternly “you know Saturday is when I meet with the girls.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry, it’s just that the kids miss you” he paused, and they both knew this to be a lie “and I’ve got some things I need to take care of.”

“What about your wife?” Alice asked.

“She’s waiting for me, we’ve both got an absolute monster list of things to do today. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t really need the favor, and besides, don’t you want time with your grandchildren?” This type of manipulation irked Alice, but she said nothing. She sighed wearily and looked down at the expectant eyes of her son’s children.

“You have to come back by three. Any later than that and I won’t have time to make dinner and get to bed on time” she told him with resignation. She was upset about the unexpected change in plans, but also knew she couldn’t very well take it out on the children.

“Great, thanks mom, I love you” Tom pecked her check and was back in the car with the engine roaring before the children had enough time to unpack a single thing from their bags. Alice watched Tom look back before racing the car back out of the driveway and into the street. It was a brilliant, sunny day with a perfect cool breeze. Alice let the breeze catch on her bare legs and neck before closing the door and going in to call Estelle and Marilyn.

On her way back through the living room, she watched James unraveling long cords and squirming behind the television while Savannah sat her two doll on the sofa, facing each other as though in conversation. The light was dark, and Alice instinctively opened the curtains before regarding the children.

“Good Morning Savannah, Good Morning James” she said, forcing a smile. “Have you two had breakfast?” They looked uncertainly at one another, and James nodded, though Alice knew they hadn’t. “I’m about to make eggs and toast if you’d like.” She said to them “would you like any?” They both nodded quickly. As she walked past them Alice was amazed that they hadn’t yet said a single word to her. Their own grandmother and they wouldn’t even say a word. As she picked up the telephone in the kitchen and dialed Estelle’s phone number, she wondered briefly what her father would have said about children not regarding their grandparents. He would have taken away the toys and the games for a second and made them speak, that’s what he would have done. Estelle’s daughter picked up the phone on the third ring.

“Hello Marcy, it’s Alice Hanson, is your mother there?”

“Hi Mrs. Hanson, this is Justine, but I’ll get grandma for you” Justine sang through the phone. Alice was taken aback by how adult the voice in the phone was, but managed to thank the girl as she twisted the cord around her fingers that suddenly looked so old to her. After a moment, Estelle came on the line and Alice explained that she wouldn’t be able to make it to coffee this morning.

“It seems I’m trapped here again all afternoon” she whispered, looking through the door into the dining room to see that the children hadn’t heard her.

“Oh you must be out of your mind!” Estelle exclaimed. Alice could picture her, the cordless phone to one ear, an exasperated hand in the air, and her sky-blue eyes wide. “I don’t know why you put up with that son of yours!” Her voice was rising, and Alice looked again into the living room, though she knew the children couldn’t hear Estelle. “It’s just insanity Alice, insanity! I think you should take to locking your door and sneaking out the back every time you see Tom or Nina pull up in the driveway, just sneak out like a teenager and then where would they be?”

“They’d be at the bar with the children I’m guessing” Alice muttered, still eyeing Savannah who had one hand on each doll’s back and was mouthing some imaginary conversation. “Anyway, I’m going to make them some breakfast. Tell Marilyn I’m sorry but I can’t spend all morning calling around, and you two are welcome here for lunch today. I’ve got some roast beef for sandwiches and we’ll eat at noon.” She hung up the phone and regarded the kitchen for a moment before going to work. The wallpaper was peeling, despite her efforts with glue and tape. She could remember when she had unrolled it, years ago when her hair was long and tied beneath a bandanna. She could remember waiting for Herb to come home so she could ask about how to get the bubbles out, and how disappointed she’d been to discover it was too late – if only she’d waited. Alice had been in this house for almost forty years, and though it showed the age, she could still see how fresh it felt when she and Herb moved in with their two young children; one more growing inside her.

She shook the memory off with a shiver and went to the olive green refrigerator, pulling out the eggs and butter, then moved to the pantry for bread. She could hear the sounds of explosions on James’ video game and started the stove, then pulled out a pan. She quickly beat eggs, melted butter in the pan, and put bread in the toaster. Savannah’s voice was now audible, and this brought an odd sense of calm to Alice, despite the fact that she still felt as though her blood might boil every time she thought of Tom’s wide grin at the doorway. The thought vanished with the smell that the butter was overcooked, and Alice poured in the eggs, hastily adding pepper and salt, buttering toast, putting more bread in the toaster. She was moving swiftly, but not rushed, and felt satisfied with the familiar movement of making breakfast for children, even if they weren’t talking. She remembered cheese, and how much Savannah liked cheesy eggs, and hurried back to the refrigerator and took out cheddar. She sliced up pieces and watched them melt, then buttered more toast and put in a third set, wondering if they even needed two pieces each. She realized that she couldn’t actually remember how much bread the children wanted, but if they were anything like their father, they would be wanting a lot of bread.

“Savannah – James! Your breakfast is ready!” Alice called as she placed piles of eggs on each plate and set them on the kitchen table.

“Five more minutes” James replied, his voice distracted. Alice then surprised herself as much as James, by walking into the living room and snapping off the television.

“NO!” James cried, and looked to her in fury as he reached up and turned the TV back on and rocked back to his place on the floor. Alice turned it off again and pointed to the kitchen. James stood up, and he was intimidating though he was only ten years old. Alice was aware of Savannah to her left, frozen and curious. They both had the same moppish brown hair, the same eyes that Alice could see all the way back to her own father. The living room was silent, and Alice moved to guard the TV control, telling them both in a voice that she hoped was not shaking, to go into the kitchen. She was ready for a fight, but they surprised her by moving into the kitchen..

“I hate this smelly place” James muttered.   Savannah was silent, and seemed smaller than she had just a moment ago. Alice could see she was torn between a need to not get in trouble and a need to be loyal to her older brother.

“That may be so, but inside these walls, you do as I say.” Alice told him as he sat down sullenly at the table, jabbing angrily at the eggs. They ate in silence, and when the plates were cleared, Alice looked at them both.

“Now play as you like, lunch is at 12.” She said. James said nothing and refused to meet her gaze as he moved back into the living room. Savannah smiled suddenly and stood up, but instead of saying anything, walked back into the living room and resumed having her dolls converse.

Alice went upstairs and changed into clothes, then brushed her teeth and spent a moment watching her own expression in the mirror. She looked older than she felt, though she looked her age. Thirty years ago when Tom was the same age as James was now, she was young, powerful, and had three boisterous children and Herb. She missed Herb and on some days, like today, she felt the long hours before her as work, not knowing how long her life would be like this. She wondered how life could go from being so full to so empty in a few short decades. The sound of the children downstairs snapped her out of this sort of gloomy reverie and she grabbed her book and went downstairs. She was re-reading Dubliners by James Joyce and found that she was pleased to have the time to read. Saturdays didn’t usually allow for such indulgence.

Downstairs she had just settled in on the chair in the living room when Savannah came to her with one doll in each hand.

“Grandma” Savannah began, her eyes looping left, then up, but not meeting Alice’s gaze. “Will you play with me?” Alice did not want to play with Savannah and her expression betrayed this thought too quickly. Savannah looked directly at her for a moment, then turned to walk away, hanging her head slightly. Alice felt a wave of sympathy for the girl, who was so often left at this house.

“I’ll play with you, just let me finish this story, ok?” Alice said suddenly. This response surprised Savannah, who turned around with a big smile.

“Ok, that’s fine! Just come get me when you can!” she exclaimed as she bounded back to sofa. James looked at her and curled his lip in an awkward sneer. Alice watched them for a moment, then turned to her book. She became lost in the story of Araby, and remembered how much she loved the narrator in this story, and how she loved his vision of the bazaar before he got there, and how she could feel a thud in her chest when it was too late, and all the stalls closed. Nearly half an hour later, Alice had completed the story and was deep in thought. She had to remember the children in her house for a moment, had to remember to play with Savannah as agreed. She stood up and walked over to the living room. James stiffened but pretended not to notice her.

“Savannah, I’ve finished my story and would be happy to play with you now” Alice said The words felt formal, and she realized how uncomfortable she was. Savannah looked up and grinned.

“OK – you take this doll, her name is Jory, and I’ll take this doll, her name is Belinda, and we’ll pretend we’re going to get ready to go to the park!” Savannah’s voice was rising, and her excitement overwhelmed Alice. Alice awkwardly took the doll into her hand and sat down on the sofa. She engaged in the conversation with the dolls and tried to not feel so stiff. She could feel Savannah’s disappointment growing but was uncertain how to develop this ridiculous game further. At one point, Savannah, exasperated, looked at her and said “no, the dolls don’t want roast beef sandwiches” and Alice realized she was thinking more about lunch than about the game, so she attempted to refocus.

“Well then, can we go buy a new dress? I sure could use a new dress!” Alice said, stiffly moving the doll from side to side. Savannah’s eyes lit up.

“Sure! We’ll go to the tracks, make some cash, and then have lots of money for shopping!” Savannah exclaimed. This declaration took Alice by surprise, though she knew instantly it was something Nina would have said. She could picture the stick figure of a woman leaned down and saying this to the little girl that was sitting in front of her.

“I think we should just go to the bank” Alice said, hoping to divert the conversation.

“But there’s no money in the bank silly! We’ve got to take what we have and make it into fun money.” Savannah reached into her bag and retrieved a purse for her doll. “I only have one of these, Jory, but you can keep your money in mine. It’ll just get stolen if you put it in your pocket.” Alice was running out of ideas about how to respond, and the game was increasingly frustrating. She continued for a few moments, then knew she could not maintain the conversation much longer and stopped. She handed the doll back to a clearly disappointed Savannah, and climbed the stairs to her room. She smoothed the bedspread with her wrinkled hand, then opened the window and let the sound of the street come in. She sat on the bed, then let herself fall back and stare at the ceiling, listening to the Hopkins’ lawnmower. She wondered if she should go over and ask if Glen could mow hers as well. She wished that the children weren’t here and that she could instead be outside with her friends. She let her mind go blank.

The phone rang and Alice jolted up. She felt a flash of panic before looking at the clock and seeing she had only dozed off for ten minutes. She went to the phone. It was Marilyn.

“Hello my dear. Estelle and I were wondering if you still wanted company for lunch. I hear there will be roast beef.”

“Oh yes, that would be delightful!” Alice said hurriedly. “Can you bring pickles? And this time I mean spears, not chips.”

“Certainly. We’ll be there at 12:00 sharp.” Alice glanced again at the clock and noted it was just about 11:30, so she had plenty of time to clear the living room and put together sandwiches. She wondered if the children liked roast beef, then wondered if the children would behave for Estelle and Marilyn. After hanging up the phone, she walked down stairs and was startled to find Savannah in the kitchen, with no dolls or anything except her somber expression.

“I’m thirsty” she declared.

“Then you should get something to drink.” Alice replied. “In this house, you can always help yourself to anything to drink. Ask about food, but I can’t have you going thirsty just because I fall asleep for ten minutes.” Savannah stood up and opened the refrigerator, took out a bottle of juice and set it on the counter. Alice pointed to the cupboard and retrieved a glass, then poured the juice for Savannah, who smiled and drank the juice right there.

“Are you hungry?” Alice asked. Savannah shook her head. “Hmm. Well, I’m making sandwiches for Estelle and Marilyn. You and James can have one if you like. Go tell him. We’ll eat in half an hour.” Savannah roughly gulped down her juice, set the glass on the counter, and rushed into the living room. Once again, Alice was struck by just how little these children spoke.   Alice shook her head and pulled the roast beef, mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, and tomatoes out of the refrigerator. Savannah came back in, carrying the doll she called Belinda.

“James isn’t hungry, and I’m not either.” She said stonily.

“That’s fine. You’ll be able to eat after your parents take you home then.” Alice responded. Silently, Savannah turned and went back into the living room. Alice was aware that the children had similar emotions about being at her house as she had about having them there and this realization made her depressed. It was sad to her that her own children and grandchildren were nothing like the family she grew up in. She had loved her grandmother, and the memory made her suddenly nostalgic, too nostalgic. She took in a quick breath and went to the sink to wash her hands, then went about making sandwiches.

Estelle brought over her dog, Bungee, and the children instantly abandoned the video game and the dolls to terrorize the small corgi. Estelle claimed not to mind, but just to give the dog a break, Alice opened up the backyard and let Bungee, Savannah, and James run out there. She also welcomed the opportunity to elaborate on her frustration with Tom and Nina. Alice’s son and daughter-in-law gambled, they drank, and based on Nina’s diminishing body, there might even be drugs involved. On top of it all, they were raising poorly mannered children, one of whom equated new clothing with winnings at the races. This last admission got gasps out of both Marilyn and Estelle. After two hours and three glasses of iced tea, Estelle and Marilyn stood to say farewell. An exhausted Bungee had to be carried out of the house, and Alice was once again alone in the house with two uncertain children. She also suspected that they were hungry.

“I’m hungry” Savannah said. “And James is too.”

“If James is hungry, he can tell me himself” she said, looking at James, whose eyes widened with fury.

“I don’t want your food” he declared simply, and walked out of the living room, once again leaving Savannah uncertain and alone with her grandmother. Alice made a sandwich and set it on the kitchen table.

“You are welcome to eat that” Alice told Savannah, who sat down and grabbed it as though she hadn’t eaten for a week.

At three o’clock sharp, Alice picked up the telephone and dialed Tom and Nina’s number. There was no answer, so she left a message. Expecting this, she then dialed Tom’s cell phone, and with increasing concern, Nina’s. She didn’t expect them to be unreachable and not pick up their cell phones. She expected them to be late, but typically at least one of them would answer the phone, even if they were drunk and couldn’t drive. Alice decided to read another story, and figured they would probably call as soon as she got to a good part. She read one, and then another and realized it was nearly four o’clock. She called again and there was no answer on any phone. She called again at five, and realized then that James hadn’t eaten since this morning. She looked in her cupboards and the pantry, seeing shelf after shelf of food that children would not enjoy. For a moment she indignantly thought that they should be grateful to eat what she had, but then went to her purse and saw that she had enough for pizza.

“James, Savannah” she began.   James kept his back to her, his eyes and attention still trained on the endless battle he had been waging all day. Savannah faced her. “I’m thinking of ordering pizza, but I need to know what kind you like.” James paused his game and faced her.

“Really?” He asked “You eat pizza?” Alice smiled rather than address the question.

“What kind would you like?”

“We like pepperoni” he said quickly, before turning back to his game.

“Ok – but when we eat pizza we have to watch a movie.” Alice said as she walked into the kitchen where she opened the phone book and found a place that promised quick delivery.

Fueled by pizza, James was remarkably compliant when Alice insisted on turning off the video game and putting in the only move she had that was both age appropriate and possibly interesting, which was Beauty and the Beast. The entire movie, Alice listened intently for the phone to ring, or the living room to light up with headlights, but neither came. When the movie finished it was eight o’clock, which seemed to Alice like bedtime for a ten year old and an eight year old. She once again dialed the three numbers and listened to the drone of the rings before they went to voicemail. Alice went upstairs and made up the one guest bed, and folded out the futon in the office. She put sheets on them and blankets before noticing James leaning in the doorway.

“Why are you doing that?” He asked, his face tight.

“Because you need a place to sleep” she answered.

“I’m not sleeping here” he responded, then added “it stinks.”

“You are staying here.” Alice said “until your dad comes to get you.”

“I’m calling him” James said quickly, and turned to go downstairs. Alice followed, and stood with James as he dialed first his house, then his father’s cell phone, and then Nina’s.  Finally, he hung up the phone. “I’ll go to bed, but I won’t go to sleep.   I don’t want to miss him when he comes, that would make him mad.” He told her.   Alice nodded as he turned to go back to the living room and tell his sister the plan he had devised. Alice looked for toothbrushes, but only found one. When she suggested they share, James refused and declared his teeth were clean enough anyway. Tired, Alice accepted this.

The children marched to bed gloomily, but without argument. Alice recognized this as resignation that they were accustomed to. From her bedroom, she dialed the numbers again to the same uneventful voicemails and left furious, whispered messages on the cell phones. She began to wonder if something had happened, something bad. A wave of guilt overcame her as she pictured a car crash. No, that couldn’t be it. She would have known by now. It was, however, remarkably irresponsible, even by Tom and Nina’s standards. They had never failed to at least call before. Even in the worst of times they would call drunkenly to say goodnight to James and Savannah before Alice hung up on them.

Alice tried to read but was unable to concentrate.  Eventually she put aside the book and turned out the light. She closed her eyes and expecting the phone to ring at any moment, until she faded into sleep.

Alice awoke suddenly, morning light coming in her window. Her dreams had been vivid and uncomfortable, leaving her in an uncertain and still tired state. She thought immediately of the children and got out of bed as quickly as possible as she moved to the guest room where Savannah slept, her mouth open still. Alice turned around and found James in the hallway.

“Is my dad here?” he asked.

“No James, he isn’t here yet.” Alice responded, leaning on the doorframe. James looked at her for a full minute before turning and walking downstairs. Alice followed him, hurried.

“Can I make you breakfast?” She asked when they both reached the bottom step. Her hand was light on his shoulder, not wanting to grab him, not wanting to force, but wanting him to turn to her. When he did, she saw his face was wet with quiet tears, and she knelt, despite the roaring she felt in her knees as she moved down to him. She opened her arms and he folded into them as quiet as a bird falling on grass.