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Friday, July 21, 2017

(13) HE OFTEN SAYS HE WISHES HE'D BEEN KINDER TO MIMI.

Ed is in his study, where he is puttering at his desk and listening to a tape of oldies-but-goodies, poignant love songs that bring tears to his eyes.  Puccini’s Un Bel Die does that to me every time.    It was “our song” when I left Ed, two-month-old Kathie in my arms, to join my mother in Florida and file for a divorce.  And one fine day we returned.
“I’ve got the two stories I told you about on the phone,” I say.  One of them is about your mother and the time we had convincing her she needed to go into a nursing home.  The other one is funny.
“Good,” he says.  “I’d like to hear them.”
 He’s heard no more than two pages about Mimi when his eyelids become heavy and his head begins to nod.  I stop reading and his eyes blink slowly open.  “Go ahead, I’m listening.  It’s very interesting.”
Interesting?  Boring, maybe.   Even Aliceann’s brazen nude is yawning. Should I make a tape for insomniacs?  When he nods off repeatedly, his head dropping onto his chest, I ask him if he’d like to take a nap.  He denies that he’s falling asleep.  “Aliceann always says the same thing, but I’m just thinking.  I have a lot on my mind.”
“I think that’s enough for now,” I say.  “I’ll continue next time I come over.”
We begin talking about the boat he had in Florida.  I am curious to know how he managed after his Parkinson’s was diagnosed.  He says he needed some help getting on deck, but once he was at the helm, he was fine. 
“Did Blake and Grace enjoy boating with you?” I ask.
“Yes, but all they wanted to do was cruise around and look at the expensive waterfront homes.  Aliceann and I liked to fish.  She got really good at it.” 
Aliceann comes into the study and begins rummaging through the drawers in her desk next to Ed’s—looking for a bill she mislaid, she explains.  Sensing that she may have joined Ed and me because she thinks I have spent quite enough time alone with him, I give them both a hug and leave to say goodbye to Kathie..

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Ed and Aliceann’s 14th anniversary.  She has logged almost half as many years as I did and like me, can look back on both good and bad times.  Unfortunately, her bad times are occurring in her older years, when I’m sure she had anticipated some form of comfortable widowhood, instead of the dreaded role of care-taker for an invalided, irritating, falling-down husband.  I remember a discussion we had when the Malleys invited me for a second visit after they had moved to West Palm Beach.   During the drive to a restaurant, Ed remarked with a twinkle in his voice, “Aliceann can’t wait for me to kick off, so she can inherit all my money.”  She answered in her sprightly way, “Not yet!”  He was in his 70s, and they both probably expected him to stay just as he was until he politely expired and passed on to the heavenly kingdom, leaving her with a good income, a nice home, and all her pets.  Ed has been accustomed for years to doing things his way, and it probably never occurred to him that aging would be any different.  And he has turned out to be as reluctant as his mother to live anywhere except where he wants, and just as tough a nut to crack        
He often says that he wishes he had been kinder to Mimi.  “She was a good mother when I was growing up.  She did her best to teach me what was right and wrong: I should be courteous to adults, I should open doors for them, I shouldn’t tell lies, I shouldn’t steal.  She used to say, ‘If you ever see anything you want, Edward, don’t steal it.  Just come to me and I’ll give you the money.’”
Now, in his old age, he apparently thinks he should be able to come to Ted, and Ted’ll give him the money.  “Ted is tough,” he keeps saying to me without elaborating.  In my view, Ted is also fair and will help his father when the resources are available—although he’s not sure there’ll ever be enough money for the prodigal father to be able to have everything he wants.  
Yesterday stands out as the pleasantest day I have spent with Ed and Aliceann since their arrival.  Kathie invited me to join their party of four to go to the Huntington Theater for a performance of Puccini’s comic opera, Gianni Schicchi.  Believe me, I had to look back and forth at the program three times to pin down the spelling.  As for the pronunciation, I can say zucchini correctly, and that’s the sum and substance of my Italian repertoire. 
When it comes to Puccini’s operas, it never mattered to Ed and me that we couldn’t understand the words.  The music thrilled us, brought tears to our eyes, and rekindled romantic feelings.  Vonnie came upon us one night weeping over “Musetta’s Dance,” which seemed to us to be one of Puccini’s saddest, most poignant arias.  It was years before we realized that Musetta was a saucy vamp, not a tragic figure.  Vonnie took one look at our brimming eyes, said, “Well, I never!” and departed, no doubt marveling over the unaccountable behavior of parents.
In order to see the opera and its second feature, Postcards from Morocco, the five of us, along with two wheelchairs, have to get to the theater before 5:00 p.m.  I arrive in Westwood at 3:30 with more chapters of my latest book for Kathie to edit, and to pick up the ones she has worked on.  Every winter I have a new manuscript for her editorial consideration.  There are at least six of these “books” in my computer, all of them rejected by my agent.  It’s a big letdown when a submission is returned, like Mom’s “homing pigeons,” as she called her unaccepted poems.  I sublimate my frustrations with golf all summer, then when cold weather sets in, it’s back to the computer keyboard.
Aliceann, hearing me having my usual struggle with the door to Kathie’s kitchen, comes loping out in a lacy beige teddy, looking adorable.  “I’ll get the knife,” she says, and performs her housebreaking trick.
Frank comes straggling out to greet me in his undershirt, looking not exactly adorable, but frankishly comfortable in front of me, which I like.  Kathie calls out that her revisions are on the round table, so I look through them while she and Frank get dressed.  She has marked for extinction dozens of paragraphs and flashbacks, and oh, how much better the story unfolds.   A best-seller, she predicts.  Would that it were so!  Then I could help everyone who has helped me, including Ed.  He has always been the epitome of graciousness about my alimony, maintaining that he doesn’t begrudge a cent. 
The next time I see Aliceann the teddy is under cover. She is wearing an over-blouse and skirt the color of wet sand, and is draped with so many ropes and beads and chains that I wonder how she can stand up straight.  Somehow, though, on Wife #2 this kind of exuberant display has always looked exactly right.
We scrunch ourselves into Ed and Aliceann’s white station wagon, in which Frank is the driver and Ed the front seat passenger.  In the “way back,” in the storage space, are two folded wheelchairs and their four footrests.
I squeeze into the backseat between Aliceann and Kathie, who won’t let us proceed until our seat belts are fastened.   All the parking spaces with wheelchair logos are taken, but Frank scouts out a spot on a side street and the complicated exodus from the station wagon begins.  At last Ed and Kathie are settled in their wheelchairs, and we head for the theater, with a stop along the way to make post-performance reservations at the nearby Uno Restaurant.
We are ushered to an area at the back of the theater where space has been made available for wheelchairs.  Kathie sits in the second-to-last row next to Frank.  Aliceann moves the folding chairs in the back row  she can put Ed’s wheelchair between wives #1 and #2.   To give my “sister” her due, she has been downright generous about sharing her husband from the time they were married.  Before they moved to Florida, I remember saying to her that I was going to miss playing golf with him.  She said I didn’t have to miss it, we should go ahead and play, in fact she insisted we should.  I said, “But people will talk.”  She said to heck with the people, we’ll all meet for dinner at the golf club and show them how silly they are.
None of us had ever heard of a comedy by Puccini.  It must be funny because members of the audience who understand Italian keep laughing.  I notice Aliceann ducking her head in an odd way but think maybe her ten-pound necklaces are giving her a crick in her neck.  If I had ducked my head I’d have seen the surtitles on the screen above the stage, which I didn’t know about because I hadn’t looked at the program.
There is only one Puccini-ish passage in the whole opera, and it is so nostalgia-producing that Ed and I find ourselves reaching for each other’s hands.  I caress his scaly one, and he fondles my veiny, wrinkled one.  Could this be the last time we will share a moment like this?
 The second feature on the program is called Postcards from Morocco, and it is more like a bad dream than live entertainment.  The voices are still exquisite, but I can’t imagine how the singers know what note to jump to next.  Throughout the opera, it seems as if there is no melody to guide them, just random tones landing here, there, and everywhere.  How would a performer learn these scattered notes and be able to repeat them in another performance?  Aliceann and I go to the ladies lounge to relieve ourselves and our boredom.  In her opinion, she says, the Postcards to Morocco should have been stamped address unknown.  When we return to our seats, an actor is on all fours in the middle of the stage, his head down.  Ed whispers the best line in the show: “He’s throwing up.”  The old dear still has the sense of humor that kept our marriage afloat through many years of all kinds of weather, fair and foul. 
By the time we get to Uno’s at 8:00, we’re famished.  I had forgotten to mention the wheelchairs, but the hostess pushes three tables together to accommodate us.
During dinner I ask Aliceann to tell me about the year of the seven sailfish.  She had started to describe it a week ago but was interrupted by a phone call. 
“What happened was, I kept getting these sailfish and we’d put a flag up to let everyone know.” 
I say in an aside to my animal-loving daughter that they always released the fish, and she says she’s glad to hear it.
“When we’d head into the marina with all our flags flying,” Aliceann continues, “the guys would yell, `We don’t want to hear about any more sailfish!  You’re hogging the ocean!’”
 “Did you ever learn how to bring the boat into the wind?” I ask Aliceann.
She wets her finger and holds it in the air.  “I never knew where the darn wind was.  Ed would say, ‘Barbara used to bring the boat into the wind,’ and I’d say, ‘But I’m not Barbara!’”
“You tell ‘im, Aliceann,” I say.
“Oh, I always did.  I’d yell at him that he was crossing my lines and he’d better do something about it or we’d lose the fish.  I was a regular Captain Bligh on the ocean.”
“On land, too,” Ed says, making us all laugh.  What a delight it is to have my old ex-husband back again, cracking jokes.  And even during the deadening dead-letter Postcards he didn’t fall asleep once, which was a record.  Aliceann and I kept peering at him in the theater but never caught him napping.  A quick snooze is hardly a crime, anyway.  I myself drop off in the middle of movies these days—not because I’m getting old, of course, but because movies aren’t what they used to be.
As I drive home that night, I find myself thinking about Aliceann’s tuna fishing stories and remembering what life was like in my own boating days.   Starting in 1953, per order of the Captain, I wrote in the Logs faithfully after he bought a 40-foot Matthews Sportsfisherman.   The Happy Days was half floating cocktail party, half tuna- and shark-hunting vessel.  We spent virtually every weekend cruising, sometimes with children along, sometimes with convivial friends, sometimes just the two of us, relishing the chance to be alone.   When I’d write that we had beer and cheese and crackers, etc., the et cetera discreetly covered a lot of marital romping in our floating hotel room.
 I could empathize with Aliceann’s excitement over the tuna she and Ed caught.  To hook a tuna on rod and reel was a triumph in itself, but hauling it onto the deck after a long battle was the ultimate thrill.  

I call Ted this morning to ask what’s happening with the purchase of the Florida house.  Ed had told me they were having trouble getting credit “because my credit is no good, and neither is Ted’s.”
“My credit is wonderful,” says Ted.  “Never better.  I just can’t come up with the kind of money he wants without depriving myself and my family. Dad has gone through millions of dollars in his life, but I’m not going to let him start going through my savings.”
“It’s the like the old fable of the grasshopper and the ant,” I say.
“Well, the grasshopper just made a big mistake.  He sent Blake a copy of Kathie’s letter summarizing her expenses for the apartment, and Blake is wild.”
“Wild?” I say, my heart giving a leap of joy.
“Yes, Blake called me as soon as he read it to apologize for the way he’d shrugged off Kathie’s economic worries.  He had no idea what she’d gone through.  He says she shouldn’t spend another cent on the apartment.  He’s coming up here in a couple of days to talk to Dad.  I brought up the subject of his will, and Blake said, ‘Kathie shouldn’t have to wait to be reimbursed by a will.  She’s entitled to be helped out as soon as possible.’”
I tell Ted this is the best news I’ve heard in weeks.  Then I call Kathie, burbling with excitement, but she has a student with her and catches only half of what I’m saying.  She says it sounds very nice and she’ll be in touch later.
When we next talk, Kathie says, “So Ted sent Blake a copy of my letter?”
“No, that’s the strange part about it.  Dad sent it to him.”
Dad did?”
“Yes, he must have been too confused to realize the effect your letter would have on such a fair, honest man.  If he had been thinking straight, he surely would have realized that sending it on to Blake would hurt his cause, rather than help it.”    
Kathie has the same reaction I did when I tell her Blake is “wild.”  She’s glad he’s wild, not just for her own sake but for her father’s.  If Blake is really going to help his old friend, he needs to know how Ed thinks—and how he forgets, and how he gets confused, and how he gets confused when he thinks about what he’s forgotten.

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