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Sunday, August 13, 2017

(3) SHORTLY AFTER NOON A NIGHTMARE DESCENDS UPON ALICEANN.


October 1999
     Once Delta Airlines disgorged Ed and Aliceann, it took three men and three vehicles to get everybody and everything to Westwood.  My Ex and wife #2—dazed and disoriented— looked like refugees from a hurricane zone.  A substantial number of suitcases and shopping bags were loaded into the back of Frank’s truck.  Finally, four pet carriers containing one dog and six cats were put into Tim’s station wagon.  Wait, you say, one dog?  Aren’t there supposed to be two dogs?  Please, we can’t expect preparations to proceed swimmingly.  Sheba’s dog carrier was proclaimed one inch too long for Delta’s regulations on passenger planes, so she’s coming later on a cargo freight plane.  
     The caravan arrives in Westwood shortly after the paint crew leaves.  Ed and Aliceann are eager to release their pets from their carriers and into the pen, but Frank and Tim need half an hour to finish the final steps of anchoring down the mesh, so that nobody can tunnel under.  That done, “the kids,” as Aliceann calls them, are introduced to their new haven, and what do they do?  Complain, of course, loudly and bitterly.  Kathie's dad and Aliceann seem to feel pretty much the same way as the cats.  They are dismayed to find the apartment unfinished. 
     “We tried—oh how we tried, but we plain ran out of time.  All the red tape put us months behind schedule,” Kathie explained. 
     The floors, walls, ceilings, outside doors and windows are all in place in what used to be the garage, and the kitchen and bathroom sinks are operative, but the shower and toilet are not yet hooked up, and neither are the kitchen appliances. Frank and Kathie’s extra bed is in the new bedroom, so Ed and Aliceann will be able to sleep in their own quarters, but they’ll be having meals with Kathie and Frank and using the master bathroom in the main house until the final touches are completed. 
     Ed falls down in Frank’s bathroom his first day in Massachusetts.  He doesn’t know how it happened.  He started to turn towards his walker and found himself on the floor.  Frank helped him up, but he is shaken.  He plans to use the wheelchair more, which we all think is a blessing, but which he views as another of the curses that aging is imposing on him. 
     The greatest excitement of the Malleys’ first day in Westwood is not Ed’s fall but the Case of the Missing Cat.  During the morning, Aliceann is busy unpacking and Frank and Chad are busy with ongoing remodeling.  Shortly after noon, a nightmare descends upon Aliceann.  She can’t find Calvin.  He is GONE.  She is convinced that someone has let this member of the Thoroughly Indoor Cats . . . out!  Nobody admits to the felony.  Everyone joins in the hunt.  No box is left unturned.  No suitcase unopened.   No room uninvestigated.  No calling, cooing, coaxing left untried.  But no Calvin can be found.  He is gone, swallowed up in the wilds of Westwood, far from home, cold, lost, afraid, never again to be safely within the bosom of his family.  
     Aliceann continues unpacking, but the tragedy is writ large upon her face. Then, suddenly, as happened so often even in the safe environs of Florida, she turns to go into a different room, and there sits Calvin, licking his whiskers and looking smug.  Why do these people carry on so?  And why must I get so many kisses when I have merely finished washing? 
     Two truckloads of Things arrive in Westwood.  In addition to the lifetime collections of valued possessions are a bag of garbage that Aliceann didn’t want to leave behind for the new owners, the grapefruit picker, several tropical plants (which reacted to the traumatic move by dying), an antique wooden bird cage, a good deal of scrap lumber, a 40-year-old outboard motor that Ed had tried unsuccessfully to give Ted 20 years ago, two ride-on lawn mowers, and several old-fashioned push mowers.  Kathie says the list goes on and on, and she’ll tell me more when she has time. 
     Aliceann has adapted nicely to not yet having a fully operative kitchen of her own.   She seems to expect to continue preparing the meals she’s always prepared, so she does it in Kathie’s kitchen and makes enough for everybody.  Indeed, Kathie says, one would think they were all in Aliceann’s dining room back in Florida.  “Eat,” she tells everyone.  “Have some more.  Taste this wonderful garlic bread.  Try the potatoes.  Who would like some margarine?  Edward, eat your vegetables.”             Kathie is delighted to have dinner cooked for her every day.  Between her full-time job as a psychology professor at Boston University and trying to take time with her Dad, she feels stretched pretty thin, and appreciates not having to worry about fixing a meal at night.  She and Frank do their share by taking care of the cleanup. 

     I slide open the kitchen door and have a quick visit with Aliceann.  I tell her how much I enjoyed the spaghetti sauce she gave me last week.  She promptly takes another container out of the freezer for me to take home.  Collecting Kathie’s grocery list, she leaves to have her hair done and to food-shop for both families.
     I go to Ed’s study and show him three cards for Aliceann’s upcoming birthday. He chooses the one with the cat looking into the goldfish bowl.  What a time he had trying to open it to see the message inside.  My Mr. Fix-it ex-hubby, on whom Blake Thaxter had depended every year to assemble Christmas presents for his children, couldn’t even open a greeting card without an enormous amount of effort.
     Ed reminded me about his frustration with being unable to write.  Gripping a pen with his sausage fingers, he demonstrated what he meant on a scrap of paper.  He began shaping the letters of my name and laboriously formed a fairly legible “Barbara,” but then the pen tapered off after the “M” for my last name.  The wobbly line looked like an electrocardiogram of someone’s heart, slowing down to its final beat. 
     “I can start out all right, but then my fingers get tired or something.  It’s the same way when I use the walker at the parking lot.  I go around a couple of times, and then I’m too tired to take another step.”
     
      A change in this week’s routine.  I arrive at Kathie’s house early enough to follow Frank to a Roslindale auto-repair shop where the mechanic will work on his truck’s stalling problem    I chatted with Frank about my late sweetheart Jack, a charmer with an offbeat sense of humor and not the slightest interest in reading.  Once, when I went to Fort Lauderdale with Ed, I left Jack with a copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and told him I expected a report when I got home.  When I queried him with, “Tell me about how the species originated,” his answer was, “Well, it’s a long story.”
     I didn’t confess to Frank that thoughts of Jack enter my mind at least three times a day for a peculiar reason.  He had always maintained that the only logical way to hang a roll of toilet paper was with the outside unfolding from the top.  Trying not to think about this simply doesn’t work.  I faithfully hang the paper his way, but still, there I go again, mentally saying hello to Jack.
     He couldn’t hear me because cigarettes killed him several years ago. Once I said to him, “I think of my darling Jack every time I open this kitchen drawer.”  He looked at the cigarette ash next to a pad and pencil and said, “I’ve got to get you something better.”
     After our return to Westwood, I sat with Kathie at the round table and gave her some pages to edit.  She'd been working with four students on their dissertations but still managed to find time for me.  I joined Ed in his apartment and read a couple of typed recollections.  Again, he not only stayed awake while I was reading but laughed aloud several times.  I love it when he laughs. The first vignette was dated March 9, 1965 . . .
     In spite of the threat of bankruptcy hanging over our heads, Ed is still his easy-come-easy-go self.  After telling me how desperate things were and exhorting me not to spend one unnecessary dime, he came home with a tape of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto—despite the fact that we already have all five concertos on records.  Quite pleased with himself he was, too, and quite hurt when I failed to enthuse over his purchase.  If he had to buy a tape, I scolded, he could have at least bought one we didn’t already have.
     “But the tape is so much better than the record,” he said.
     “What’s so much better about it?  I’ll bet if you went into the other room and I played first one and then the other, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
     “Yes, I would,” he said.  “And you would, too.”
     All right, so the record was a bit scratched, was that any reason to be such a spend-thrift?  I thought we were supposed to be economizing.  What kind of one-sided budget was this, anyway?
     Meanwhile, Beethoven’s glorious music was pouring from the speaker, and I could tell Ed was wishing he could shut me off.
     “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone,” he said.  That’s what he always says when he’s feeling picked on, and it always reaches me.  Boy, wouldn’t I be sorry!  I suppose there are worse things a man can do than collect Emperor Concertos, I decided.  We sat down with our cocktails and listened companionably to the unscratched version.
     Ed was wide awake and beaming.  One day when I was writing to the Malleys, I began the letter, “Dear ex-hobby and Aliceann.”  This was a typo I didn't correct.   My ex-hubby is still my ex-hobby.

    Aliceann and I helped Ed into his windbreaker, easily a two-woman job since his arms have lost the knack of thrusting themselves into the sleeves.  “Stand up, Edward,” she said, when the jacket got caught on the back of the wheelchair.  He stood on his shaky legs and was at last bundled up and ready to go.
    I watched Aliceann lift his wheelchair into the back of her car and marveled again at how powerful her arms were.  “It is heavy,” she said, with a final gasp and a push, “but I’m used to it.”
     At Uno’s, Aliceann asked for a booth, wheeled Ed to the one indicated by the hostess and helped him get seated.  “Oh darn,” she said, “I forgot to give you your medication.  Remind me, Barbara, as soon as we get home.  And don't forget, this is my treat.  Now have a good time, you two.”  A fingertips kiss for Ed and one for me.  I thanked her and told her she was a doll.
     Ed said something, and I had to ask him to repeat it.  From here on, I will transcribe the mumbled words that issued from his swollen, chapped lips, understandable only after two or three encores.  He said he’d miss the activities he and Aliceann shared for so many years.  
     “I don’t know what I’ll do to keep busy without the boat. We used to go fishing two or three times a week before I had to sell it.”
      I told him I was sorry his older years were ending up this way, with so many losses, both physical and financial.
     “I can stand the physical infirmities—it’s being poor that is killing me.”
     The waiter took our order.  Ed asked for grilled sirloin tips and mashed potatoes; I went for the Caesar salad and cream of broccoli soup.  When our beer arrived in freezer-frosted mugs, I poured Ed’s for him, then mine.  We clinked glasses and said cheers.
     “Any new gossip about Cohasset?” he asked.
     No new gossip that I could think of, so we resorted to old gossip.  One of the juiciest scandals was that memorable party when the hostess corralled all the male guests in her kitchen, one-by-one, as neatly as a cowgirl singling out steers, and issued to each the same invitation.  Anyone who at any time felt like stopping by for a visit on his way home from work would be welcomed with a drink, hors d’oeuvres, and a relaxing tête-à-tête.  A blanket invitation, you might say.
     The wives were the last to know, of course.  It wasn’t until this femme fatale had broken up a couple of marriages and estranged two aspirants who were brothers that the truth seeped out.  She divorced her husband and married a much richer man.  She married again and then again, each new catch wealthier than the last one. Her ex-husband married Ed’s secretary who had the hateful name of Hope Darling.  Oh, how I resented that name.  I used to think, how could he help but have a thing for a Hope Darling he saw daily?  But now he tells me I had it backwards: darling Hope had a thing for him. 
     “I knew there was something going on,” I said.  It was kind of fun discussing secrets like this years later when you no longer gave a hoot.  
    The waiter served us, warning that the platters were hot.  I cut Ed’s sirloin tips into smaller, more manageable pieces.
     “I used to get terribly lonesome,” Ed said.  “Didn’t you ever get lonesome?”
     “Sure I did, once in awhile. But I’d say to myself, this will soon pass and life will feel good again.”
     “I couldn’t stand being alone, especially at night.  I had to have someone to keep me company or I’d go nuts.”
     I brought up the possibility of a support group.  Aliceann had mentioned it to me this morning when Ed was in the bathroom.  He responded with his usual refrain that he didn’t want to be involved with sick, old people he had nothing in common with.
     “Ed, Aliceann needs the support of people who are having experiences similar to hers.  Why don’t you go with her for her sake?  She does so much for you, here’s a chance for you to do something for her.”  He mumbled that he didn’t think she cared that much.
     “But she does.  She told me she did.  And Ed, you might have ideas that would help other disabled people, and they might be able to help you.”
      Ed's lack of interest was clear.  He was mumbling that he’d think about it when Aliceann appeared at our table and said breezily, “Hi, kids, have you had a nice time?  Come on, Edward, we’ve got to get you home so you can take your medication and brush your teeth.”
     The first thing Aliceann did when we all got back to Kathie's apartment was to give Ed his pills.  She showed me the parade of tablets, capsules, and liquid medicines lined up on the kitchen counter.  Many of them were not for Ed but for the animals.  Small wonder that he put the cat’s stool hardener in his ears not long ago.
     While Ed was brushing his teeth, Aliceann said, “I’m going to ask Kathie if it would be all right to bury four of our pets in her back yard.”  What a marvelous idea, I thought to myself absurdly.  I assumed she’d have them put to sleep first, but how would she choose the ones to sacrifice?
     I must have been looking quizzical because Aliceann explained that the pets in question were 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 thought a woodsy location in Kathie’s yard would be a fitting final resting place.     
     I was sure Kathie would be happy to provide space for the interment, knowing she already had a Pet Cemetery for her own departed pets. . . .
     Ed wheeled in to join us, and Aliceann dressed him warmly for their daily visit to the town's parking lot for the exercise she was sure he needed . . . . 

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