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Friday, July 21, 2017

(17) "THIS IS MR. MALLEY'S SOCIAL SECRETARY." GIGGLE..


The first thing Aliceann does when we get back to the apartment is give Ed his medication.  She shows me the line-up of pills, tablets, capsules, and liquid medicines on the kitchen counter.  Many of them are not for Ed but for the animals.  No wonder he put the cat’s stool hardener in his ear a few years ago.
While Ed is brushing his teeth, Aliceann says, “I’m going to ask Kathie if it would be all right to bury four of my pets in her back yard.”  What a marvelous idea, I think, happily irrational.  I assume she’ll have them put to sleep first, but how will she choose the ones to sacrifice?
I must be looking quizzical because Aliceann explains that the pets in question are the first Strumpfe, the second Miette, and cats Sybil and Nicholas. All long deceased and reduced to ashes.  Oh, so that’s what was in those four metal boxes.  Whenever she and Ed moved, the ashes moved, too, along with the grapefruit picker and other valuables.  But even though the animals were not originally from Massachusetts, she thinks a woodsy location in Kathie’s yard would be a fitting final resting place.     
I say I’m sure Kathie will be happy to provide space for the interment, since she already has a Pet Cemetery for a couple of her own departed pets.
Aliceann tells me she can hardly wait to get back to Florida.  She intends to get a part-time job, maybe two or three times a week, and get back to her painting and crafts.  I keep my thoughts to myself—how will Ed survive being left alone, he’s bound to keep falling, which he did again late last night.  Aliceann couldn’t get him back into his wheelchair so she had to call Frank.  Struggling to wrench himself out of a stupefied sleep, Frank for the first time was also unable to help his father-in-law up off the floor.  “What a night!” Aliceann groans.  “None of us got any sleep until Kathie said to use her Quickie and roll the back of it under him and get him up that way.  We keep forgetting how to do that.”
Ed wheels in to join us, and Aliceann gets him ready for the exercise she says he needs.  As she starts working his arms into his windbreaker.  I reach for his hand when it nears the end of the sleeve and say with a wink, “Here’s my chance to hold hands with my ex-husband.”  He lifts his eyes to mine and says, “If I could spare it, I’d let you keep it, as long as you’d promise to squeeze it now and then.”
 Aliceann says, “Can you hear him huffing, Barbara?  He drives me crazy with his huffing and puffing, but he says he’s always huffed.  Was that true when you were married to him?”
“Only when we were making love,” I say, and the three of us laugh.
It is Thursday, March 16th, and summer is here—72 warm, glorious degrees of it.  A day for walking on the beach at Nantasket if you’re young and in love, for rolling down a hill in last fall’s leaves if you’re a kid, for saying to yourself if you’re Ed Malley’s first wife, "So there, you old buzzard, just look at what you’ll be leaving when you migrate to hot and humid Florida."  A beautiful New England spring with birds singing and trees budding and crocuses coloring the soft brown earth.
A sprightly voice on the telephone: “Mrs. Malley, this is Mr. Malley’s social secretary.”  Giggle.  “He wonders if you would care to have lunch with him tomorrow.”  Giggle.
I don’t need the giggles to alert me that I am speaking with Aliceann.  Her voice is as distinctive as everything else about her.  I tell her to tell Mr. Malley I would be delighted.
           Sure and it’s Friday, the 17th of March. Winter is here, all 31 loathsome degrees of it, along with snow falling, cars skidding, and winds blustering.  Ah yes, a typical New England spring-time prank, toying with us, embarrassing us in front of our visitors from the south.  Mr. O’Malley’s social secretary, declaring the driveway in Westwood is unnavigable, postpones the lunch until Saturday.

           It’s Saturday.  When I stop to say hello to Kathie, she asks me if I brought the promised tape of “Lost for Words,” Thursday night’s Masterpiece Theater presentation. 
          “Darn it, I left it in the car.  You’ll love it.  The old lady is the image of Mimi but much easier to get along with.  She’s confused and forgetful like Dad, and her son . . . well, I’ll let you see for yourself.  I’ll be right back.”
         I cautiously make my way down the frozen ruts in Kathie’s driveway to my Behemoth.  I collect the video of “Lost for Words,” then lean back to close the door and whap!  The edge clips me on my cheekbone on its way by.  Ice, I’m thinking as I trudge toward the ramp; if I pack it with ice right away, maybe I won’t get a black eye.
          “Are you all right, Mom?” Kathie asks, as I grab for a tissue and soak it with blood. Kathie         supplies a Band-Aid that stems the bleeding but makes me look like the loser in a women’s boxing match.  I confess I got in the way of my car door, but yes, I’m all right.  And no, it won’t be a black eye, it’ll be a flap of torn skin that will eventually turn into a lucky horseshoe-shaped scar.  Everyone will want one.  I’ll write up the instructions, along with a warning not to stand so close that the car door breaks your cheekbone or makes you lose your one good eye.  Aliceann slides open the kitchen door and says Ed is dressed and ready to go.  
           I join them in the hallway, and he says, “I see you’re having problems with your skin, too.”  I tell him my car did it to get even with me for the most trivial scratches and scrapes.   
           “I’m going to trade the big bully in for a less pugnacious model.”
After Aliceann gets us settled in a booth at Uno’s, she kisses Ed, kisses the air in my direction (giggle), and leaves us to whatever mischief we might be able to cook up in the middle of a crowded restaurant. 
“She’s been wonderful lately,” Ed says.  “She’s so much more patient and cheerful.  She hardly ever gets mad at me, and I don’t blame her when she does.  I’m a lot of trouble.”
How do you convince someone who knows he’s a lot of trouble that he’s worth the trouble?  The waitress’s appearance is a welcome distraction.  She unloads our beers and a glass of water for the pills Aliceann asked me to give Ed.  She says she now carries them in her purse in case she forgets them at home.
I tell Ed I agree that Aliceann is wonderful.  “She does so many things for you that she doesn’t have to.  Like taking you for a drive even on cold days, so you’ll get some fresh air and a chance to exercise with your walker.”
While we wait for our order of crab cakes, I describe to Ed a dream I had about him.  I was in the millinery department of a store, trying on hats.  I haven’t worn a hat for years except to keep my ears from freezing, but in my dream I was methodically trying on one bonnet after another.  One in particular caught my fancy.  It had large felt petals in various shades of pink.  I tried it on and rather liked the way the petals framed my face—one of them stuck out in front like a visor.  I could wear it on the golf course, I thought.
“Then I noticed that you were with me.  Generous man that you are, you offered to pay for the hat.  You said, ‘It looks kind of funny on you, but if you want it, I’ll buy it for you.  That was the end of my high-style illusions.’”
Ed says, “I like being in your dreams.  I wish I could be in your life, but I guess we’re coming to the end of that possibility.  You don’t want to come to Florida, and I won’t be coming back here.  We’ll probably never see each other again.”
I stretch my hands out, and so does he, and I swear I feel more like the girl I was before we married than the owner of those mottled old-lady hands.  Where in the devil did all those decades go?
Ed talks about the women he dated after we separated.  I know the stories by heart.  I am able to supply details he’s forgotten--like it turning out that his temporary fiancee, Carol, had another fiancé who had been promising for years to divorce his wife.  When Ed came into the picture, Fiancé #1 got hysterical and actually followed her when she flew up to Boston to visit Ed, who found her at the airport embroiled in an emotional scene with a strange man. 
“Carol stayed with you for a week, right?”
 “Right. When she wasn’t spending hours in the bathroom or on the telephone, she was doing her nails.  It was a big relief when we became unengaged and she went back to her other fiancé.”
Ed says he’s talked enough about himself, how about me, are there any men in my life he doesn’t know about?  No, I reply, I’m contented with my single life and my women friends.  I long ago passed the age where I need a man to fulfill me.
“You should have married Bob Black,” he says for the second time since we started having these conversations.  “He was a steady sort of guy.  I’ll bet the marriage would have lasted.”
I give the same answer I did the last time.  I wouldn’t have wanted to miss having my four wonderful children.  He says, “But you’d have other wonderful children.”
I say I’m glad to hear him say that.  Does he remember how he blew up years ago when I remarked that if abortion had been legal in 1939, I wouldn’t have hesitated to have one?
“I remember.  I was very angry that you could say such a thing.”
“But you didn’t listen to the rest of what I said.  I said I was thankful that abortion was not legal.  I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on Kathie and Teddy and Vonnie and Timmy for anything in the world.  No other children would do.  Do you understand better now what I was trying to say?”
“I guess so.  It just brought back all the agonies I went through when you left me and went to stay with your mother in Florida all those months.  My only hope, it seemed, was the baby--and then you tell me years later . . . 
The waitress brings our crab cakes.  I cut Ed’s into small pieces, and after one bite we agree these are the best crab cakes we ever tasted.  But he isn’t ready to let go of the past yet.
“That night in Worcester, after we were married . . . “
”Springfield, you mean.”
“Yes, Springfield.  That was the most wretched night I have ever spent in my life.”
“I know, dear, you’ve told me that before.  But why dwell on one awful night when we went on to have so many wonderful ones?  And wonderful days, too, boating and then flying.  It was so good of you to encourage me to get my pilot’s license.”
Ed wants ketchup for his crab cakes.  A passing waiter obliges, but my escort’s enfeebled hands are unable to get the top off.  I refrain from offering help but catch the eye of an older man who seems to be in charge of the staff.  He stands by our table and wrestles with the cap.  Is he being a world-class diplomat when it appears that he, too, can’t untwist it?   He departs with the ketchup and returns with a smile and the opened bottle.  A few minutes later I notice that Ed is holding it upside-down, but no ketchup is forthcoming.  All right, now I will get into the act.  First I pound the bottom of the bottle, which might as well contain cement for all the good that time-tested maneuver does.  Then, with both elbows astride his plate, defying all laws of etiquette and gravity, I poke a table knife into the upside-down ketchup bottle and finally coax out enough to cover the crab cakes. 
“That’s fine,” Ed says. 
I quote Ogden Nash’s quatrain on the subject of recalcitrant ketchup bottles:  “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle/None will come and then a lot’ll.”
“We’re lucky a lot’ll didn’t splatter gore all over that good-looking sweater you’re wearing,” I say. “Aliceann would think a really bad-tempered waitress had been wielding a steak knife.”
Our crab cakes aren’t as warm as they were when they arrived, but we enjoy them, nevertheless.  Ed murmurs something about a lovely mature woman, and I assume he has gone back to the topic of his romantic past.  “Which one was lovely and mature?” I ask, a little weary, statistically speaking.
“You.  That’s what you’ve become.”
The compliment takes me by surprise, coming as it does after my antics with the ketchup bottle.  “Thank you for those kind words, dear, but it’s the funniest thing—inside I feel as young and foolish as ever.”  I remember hearing old ladies say what I just said, and young know-it-all that I was, I thought they were full of old shoes."
Ed starts talking about another night when he was utterly miserable. 
“What night was that?” I ask, at a loss.  “There have been so many.”
“It was in the nursing home, when I was recovering from the knee surgery.   When I realized my hopes and dreams about us would never come true, my heart was broken.  I was so disappointed, I cried all night.  Of course I know it was partly the medication, but—”
“Hi there, you two, are you having a happy time” asks Aliceann, beaming down at us.  Oh yes, very happy, we tell her.  She sits down and tells us about the errands she’s been doing and the lousy veggie wrap she’d had for lunch—not half as yummy as the ones you get at the supermarket.  She radiates so much good cheer, it’s contagious.  I tell her how much difficulty Ed and I had, after the waitress took our plates away, trying to get his wallet out of his pocket.  He couldn’t do it, so I went over to his side of the table, put my arm around behind him, and fished in the first pocket I came to.  “I could tell I’d better not dig any deeper or I’d be in dangerous territory.”  Aliceann giggles and Ed laughs.  “Then Ed told me to try the back pocket, and after I unpried the Velcro, sure enough, there was the wallet.”    
The waitress brings my take-home carton of Ed’s untouched mashed potatoes and my leftover steamed broccoli.  Aliceann helps Ed wobble out from the booth, struggle into his windbreaker, and edge into the wheelchair.  I see the waitress standing with her tray and realize we are blocking the aisle. I say to her in an undertone, as Aliceann maneuvers the wheelchair, “Would you like to hear some interesting gossip?”
“Sure,” she says, looking startled.
“You see that nice gentleman I had lunch with?  Well, I’m his first wife, and the other lady is his second.”
Her expression evolves from startled to astonished as she considers my words.  “Really!  Then the three of you are married?” she asks with complete innocence. 
“Oh no, I’m divorced, but we’re all good friends.”
 She says she thinks that’s lovely, and of course she’s quite right about that.
March 28
Ed and Aliceann have gone out for Sunday brunch, as they have done every week for the fourteen years of their marriage.  Aliceann, having finished her meal, is reading a book she brought along. Then she hears a thud, looks up, and sees to her horror that Ed has collapsed, with his head on the table, and cocoa has spilt all over him..  She jumps up and starts shaking him, trying to wake him.  Three retired nurses at a nearby table also try without success to revive Ed.
“Perhaps he’s had a stroke,” says one.  The manager calls for an ambulance.  The medics come, lift Ed onto a stretcher and tell Aliceann to follow them to the hospital.  She is shaken, crying, panicky, begs to be allowed to ride in the ambulance with Ed.  They say no, for safety reasons it can’t be allowed.  John, one of the regular patrons in the restaurant, points out that if Aliceann is forced to drive herself to the hospital, there’s going to be an accident and they’ll be needing another ambulance to carry her there.  So, they agree that she can ride up front with the driver.
On the way to Norwood Hospital, the first thing the medics do is rip off Ed’s shirt so they can check his vital signs.  One of them, filling out a form, asks Aliceann what her name is.  She tells him.  The medic who is trying to bring his patient to full consciousness asks him a couple of classic questions: Does he know who he is?  Where he is?  What his wife’s name is?
“I was absolutely certain,” Aliceann tells me later, “that Edward would say his wife’s name was Barbara. I could hardly believe it when he came out with `Aliceann.’  I figure if he‘s that sharp, he couldn’t have suffered any serious brain damage.”
Meanwhile John, a genuine Good Samaritan, has followed the ambulance to the hospital.  Locating Aliceann in the emergency room, he asks what he can do to help.  He drives her back to the restaurant so she can get Ed’s wheelchair and return Kathie’s car to Westwood. Then, having followed her there, he drives her back to the hospital, where she anxiously awaits the result of Ed’s cat scan—as do the rest of the family, who by now have been alerted by Kathie as to what has happened.  When Aliceann calls to report in to Kathie, Ed seems to be all right, but the doctor wants to be sure before releasing him.

Kathie calls late in the afternoon to say that Ed and Aliceann took a taxi home, and both appear to have recovered from their ordeal.  Tim is with me when she calls, installing something magical in my computer that will enable him to fix any problem I encounter via his computer at home.  He says he will head for Wes12twood for a last visit with his father before they leave for Florida on Tuesday.

I learn later that Tim helped Aliceann put Edward to bed.  Tim is so distressed to see how weak his father has become, he can't hold back his tears.  How could this happen to the strong, ever-patient, dependable dad who has come to his rescue so many, many times, from his rebellious teenage years right up to a few months ago when he needed a loan?  Now his indomitable dad can’t even undress himself. 
            One might think that the frightening episode in the restaurant would leave Aliceann and Edward with second thoughts about leaving the family nest and flying to a new home in Florida, but they  appear to have no intentions of shoring up the bridges they’ve started to burn.  They’re like a couple of pilgrims on their way to the Promised Land, and neither poxes and pestilence nor falls and faints will stop them from their journey.   

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