Thursday, October 13, 2016
ALBERTA: A SHORT STORY
The year I fell for Alberta was the last one we would live on Blue Cedar Street. It was only a little street, narrow, no sidewalks, about a half-mile long. It dead-ended on an open field about a mile long and a quarter-mile wide that was an easement of some kind between the town limits and the railroad. My grandfather, who had once worked for the B&O Railway, referred to it as 'the right o' way'. So that's what we always called it in my family.
Blue Cedar wasn't a busy street at all. It had no cross streets, since the backyards of the opposite side to ours bordered on the Lincoln Consolidated Elementary School playground and on a big empty meadow. The ones on our side of the street bordered on some fields, scrub forest and swamp, all owned by a man called Botkist, who had sold my father our place and who planned eventually to drain the low areas and turn the whole thing into a cheap-housing development. But for now, our street was sort of residual, a little, perpendicular, upstart appendage to the long-established neighborhoods on the southern edge of town. It was a generally safe neighborhood for kids and once our parents considered us old enough, we all pretty much had the run of the whole street, taking each other's backyards as a kind of continuous playground that ran from one end of the street to the other on both sides. At our house "old enough" was eight, and that's how old I was that summer.
The only places strictly forbidden to us 'older kids' by our mothers were the swamp and the right o' way—the swamp because, as we were always reminded, "you can drown in six inches of water" (and also because there were snakes and quicksand and hornets' nests, among other dangers in that strange and eerie place that lived in a kind of permanent twilight), and the right o' way because it was a hangout for the rail bums who still hitchhiked on the B&O back then. So, of course, those were the places we reserved for our greatest adventures of all. Once a few of us even built a really great tree house in an old pinoak on the right o' way, but promptly abandoned it once we discovered unsavory evidence that a hobo had been sleeping in it.
We had moved there when I was five, but one late fall morning when the bathroom window swelled shut for the umpteenth time, unable to open it for his morning ablutions, Dad simply called up local realtor Harley Koenig and told him to put the house on the market. Dad had always hated the place and the neighborhood and couldn't, for the life of him, figure out what had possessed him to buy it in the first place. Possibly, however, the same kind of spur-of-the-moment impulse that led him to sell it—and to change jobs four times in six years.
But that summer, we still had no idea that we would be moving, and I fell in love—painfully, desperately—with Alberta. As I say, I was eight that summer. Alberta was thirty-one.
I loved Alberta from the first moment I saw her. I was fascinated by her willowy frame, her naturally curly, jet-black hair that already had a few dazzling strands of silver in it, her statue-like pallor and bright crimson bow of a mouth that contrasted so attractively with the quick, sharp black of her eyes. I was bewitched by her thin, strong hands with their slim restless fingers that ended in sculpted red nails that she regularly touched up and buffed to perfect crescent tips while she sat sipping a cool drink on her front porch. I was mesmerized by the large gold-loop earrings that dangled from the tender, pierced lobes of her ears, by the gold and pearl crucifix that she wore around her slender, tense neck, on a delicate thread of gold chain just long enough so that the cross lay lightly in the hollow of her throat, where, if I concentrated hard, I could see her heartbeat. I was hypnotized too by the almost wire-thin wedding band that hung so loose on her gaunt finger that I wondered why it didn't just slip right off. Sometimes she played with that little ring while we talked, slipping it up and down over her knuckle in between puffs on her ever-present cigarette. I loved to watch her smoke, a hand-to-mouth gesture, so elegant yet so anxious, almost starved she seemed for whatever it was that the smoke fed her. I was amazed at how the yellowed fingers, the hacking, mucousy cough and the nicotine stink of old Judge Kimble who lived across the alley from us could be so completely nauseating, while Alberta's clean and gentle pulls on her white-filtered Salems were utterly captivating. I thrilled to see how the smoke wafted from her nostrils and mouth whenever I climbed up onto her porch and she said, "Well, hi honey! How ya doin'? How's your mom?" Or how it burst from her tight-stretched lips in short, impatient blasts whenever she and her husband Cyrus were arguing about something.
Needless to say, I didn't like Cy much. He seemed to always be upsetting Alberta—whenever he was around, that is, which wasn't very often. He was the head bartender at the Nag's Head Bar & Grill. My father said Cy was more than a bartender, a kind of junior partner to the owner, Harmon Weiss, he said. Harmon was also Chairman of the Town Council and spent more time on his civic duties than at the bar. What that meant was that Cy worked some long hours. And when he wasn't working, he spent a lot of time with his pals from the Nag's Head, out squirrel, pheasant and rabbit-hunting in the fall, spin-fishing in the summer, ice-fishing in the winter and playing Merchant's League baseball in between.
Despite the fact that I always kind of hoped that Cy wouldn't come home ever, his absence seemed to make Alberta sad and upset and I hated to see her looking blue. I always knew what was bothering her, because she would say things like, "I was expecting Cy home two hours ago. I swear we'd both have been better off if he'd married Harmon Weiss." Imagining Cy and the paunchy, mustachioed Mr. Weiss as a married couple would send me into fits of giggling. And when I got tickled like that, Alberta would start laughing too, and I liked that a lot because her face was so beautiful when she laughed, like black-eyed sunshine, sort of.
Whenever my mother mentioned Alberta, like when she and her younger sister, my Aunt Janet, would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee together, it was always, “poor Alberta”. From what I was able to gather, Alberta had been "the life of the party" when she was younger, and "the boys were always hot on her trail" back then. And Aunt Janet, who could always be counted on for a snide comment, would say, "From what I heard, she was never all that hard to catch.”
I didn't know exactly what they were talking about, but it always sounded derogatory and made me feel contempt for my aunt.
I once overhead my mother say that Alberta had married Cy when she was very young. "Couldn't have been more than seventeen," Mom said, "and Cy must have been a good twenty-nine or thirty."
Alberta had had a baby right away, a little boy, but he had died of polio when he was only seven. That had been years before, during the big polio epidemic, when I was just a baby myself. My mother said it was probably "a blessing in disguise, judging from the shape most of the surviving polio victims were in".
I wondered about that little boy. Wondered what Alberta would think if she’d overheard my mother say that. Wondered why kids died. Worried I might get sick and die. That should be something your parents could keep from happening, shouldn't it? I wondered how Alberta felt, not having been able to keep her little boy from dying.
Still, I could never quite imagine Alberta as somebody's mother. She was too slim and glamorous and gorgeous, too movie-star perfect to be worrying about diapers, or Gerber's baby food, or Carnation formula, or skinned knees and Merthiolate, or any of the other multiple, boring inanities of motherhood. I would have been content just to sit nearby and watch her all day. Just to see her pulse beating beneath that elegant crucifix, the delicate turn of her ankle beneath the strap of her sandal, the thin blue veins in the backs of her hands, the damp little curls that formed at the nape of her neck when she swept her hair up into a French roll on particularly hot, sultry days.
The flirtation began when I would ride my bike by her house on my way down Blue Cedar to my friend Kevin's. I would wave and holler, "Hi Alberta!" if she was out on the porch, which she often was in summer, like as if she got to feeling claustrophobic inside.
She would wave back and say, "Hi honey! Where ya rushin' off to?"
Sometimes I would see her again on my way back and when I waved, she would say, "You better get your little butt home, honey. Your mom must be worried about you."
Then one day when I was going by with nothing in particular to do, she said, "Hi honey. I just made some fresh lemonade. Want some?" And I went up and sat on her porch, just the two of us, she in a pretty cane chair that could have stood a coat of varnish, and I in the porch swing, where I rocked a little as I self-consciously sipped cold, sweet lemonade from a translucent-green plastic glass. Alberta seemed relaxed if a little sad. She drank her lemonade from a sweaty glass tumbler with a lot of ice and a bright green spearmint leaf in it. Her drink was a darker, tawnier hue than mine.
"What are you drinking?" I asked.
"A highball," she said.
"Something little boys can't have."
I flushed and must have scowled because she immediately changed gears and started asking me all of the usual questions: "How's your Mom? Your Dad still over at Superior Blade? Hey, how's that Aunt Janet of yours? Haven't seen her in ages. Real pretty Janet. You'll be in fourth grade next year, won't you honey? You're getting to be a big boy, aren't you?"
And I answered everything as politely and concisely as possible, a little shy in the actual presence of this beautiful woman that I had long admired from afar, or from behind my mother's skirt on the rare occasions when Alberta had come over for coffee and cake. So when she ran out of questions and I ran out of answers, we just sat there for a while in silence, with only the gentle squeak of the porch swing chain and the drone of a neighbor's lawn mower to break the silence.
"I'm gonna have some more!" she said suddenly and rather emphatically as she stood up. "How 'bout you, little man?" But I got the idea she really kind of wanted me to go and was just being polite. So I said, "No thanks. I better be going home." And after climbing down from the porch swing and handing her my empty glass, I said good-bye and left.
After that, however, I started dropping by every time I saw Alberta out on the porch, which was just about every day that summer, it seemed. And she would offer me lemonade or milk and Oreos and we would talk about whatever came up: how hot it had been, what new neighbor had moved in, when the county fair was going to begin, how my grandpa was a euchre partner of her father's, what pie was our favorite.
It eventually got so that if I told my mother that I was going to Alberta's, she would say, "Oh no you're not! You leave poor Alberta alone. You must be driving her nuts. Don't make a nuisance out of yourself." But Alberta always said I was welcome anytime. So sometimes I would tell Mom I was going to play at Kevin's, and I would even tell myself that I was, so I wouldn't feel like I was lying to my mother. But then I would sort of just naturally gravitate to Alberta's front porch.
Once when Alberta telephoned our house for some reason, I overheard my mother telling her not to encourage me because I was going to become a real pest. At that particular second I hated my mother for belittling me and making me sound like a bratty little kid. Alberta must have said that I was no trouble, because I heard Mom say, "Well maybe he isn't right now, but you'll play heck getting rid of him when he does get to be a pest, honey." Then my face burned with shame when I heard her add, "I think he's got a real crush on you."
For a couple of days after that, I avoided going by Alberta's house. How could I face her? But then Kevin called up and asked if I wanted to see the new Erector Set he had gotten for his birthday and on my way past Alberta's, I heard her sing out, "Hi honey! Just opened a package of Oreos. Want some?" So I knew right then that she didn't hate me for having a crush on her and I stopped for a while on her porch for a chat with Oreos and milk, while she sipped her usual lemonade highball.
"Hope I'm not being a pest," I said to my Redball Jet sneaker laces at the last second before I climbed down her steps to leave. In answer, Alberta sprang from her chair and rushed over to give me a hug and a kiss on the forehead. She said, "Oh honey, you could never be a pest. We're pals, okay? You're always welcome!"
But it was to be a long time before I stopped by again. For the next few days, I went by Alberta's house three or four times a day, hoping to see her out on the porch. But no such luck. Then, one day I heard Mom and Aunt Janet when they were having their mid-morning coffee at our kitchen table, saying, "…cut her wrists with a straight razor…" and "…just in time or she would have bled to death for sure…" and "…still in the psycho ward up at Saint Elizabeth's…" and "…poor Cy says it's emotional blackmail and he isn't putting up with any more of it—they haven't gotten along for years, you know."
"Poor Alberta," my mother sighed.
"Poor Alberta?" Aunt Janet snapped, "Poor Cy, the crap he's had to put up with from that bitch!"
"Janet, dear, aren't you getting awfully chummy with Cy?"
"Well, if it's any of your business, Sis, yes, I am. He deserves it, poor Cy. He deserves a break, deserves to have somebody listen to him for a change."
"Poor Cy nothing," I thought. "I hate him. I hate his guts! Alberta deserves better. She deserves somebody that'll really love her. She deserves me!"
It wasn't long after Cy moved into a room over the Nag's Head that Aunt Janet started going out with him regularly and publicly. He was estranged from his wife, she reasoned, and she was a divorcee, so what was the harm? Mom was a little upset about it at first. "What will poor Alberta think of you? And of me! Geez, Janet, try not to make a damned spectacle out of yourself, will you?" But eventually she lived with the idea. Cy and my Aunt Janet were an item. I loathed them both for it. But Mom said I could either be civil to my aunt or be grounded. It was up to me.
Summer was almost over, well into August, when Alberta finally came home. It embarrassed me that my aunt was gallivanting around in Cy's car with him while Alberta was still in the psychiatric ward at Saint Elizabeth's, but I was glad he was out of her life. I saw the ambulance go by our house and stop at hers the day she got back. I wanted to leave home, go live there, tell Alberta not to worry, that I would stay with her for as long as she needed, stay with her forever. As I ran a monolog over in my head, I saw myself as Glenn Ford or Gary Cooper, someone she would find credible and whose presence would make her feel safe and loved. But when I looked down at my skinned, grit-stained knees and worn Redball tennis shoes, I knew the truth—that I was just a little boy—and I longed to grow up overnight, or for Alberta to mark time and wait for me to catch up. I loved her almost more than I could stand.
So I did all I could do: pedaled Blue Cedar Street from end to end, over and over, in hopes of seeing her out on her front porch, trying but failing to work up the courage to march up there and ring her bell.
She didn't come out on the first day. Nor did she come out on the second. It wasn't until evening of the third day—a particularly muggy, sultry day—that she finally appeared. I had been patrolling the street on my bike all day long and had a feeling that today might be the day. When my mother called me in for supper, I shoveled down my food as quickly as possible and immediately asked to be excused.
"Where are you off to again so soon?" my mother asked, with a hint of suspicion in her voice.
“Kevin’s,” I said quickly.
"Okay, but just don't stay out until it's too dark," my mother called after me. "Night's coming earlier now and the cars can't see you in the twilight. Besides, it feels like a storm’s coming."
Mosquitoes were thick in the early evening air and not a leaf was stirring. There was a livid tint to the falling sun as columns of nimbus clouds crept swiftly up on the horizon and billowed there. Thunder rolled somewhere to the south, so distant that you had to be very still and listen closely to identify the sound. But a neighbor's dog knew it was coming and barked at the thunder and then howled, a sad, frightened howl that filled me with something like sorrow.
Alberta looked so gaunt and inconsistent and immobile sitting there in her cane chair on the porch the first time I coasted by on my bike that I wasn't even sure that I had actually seen her, almost as if she might have been a figment of my imagination. But when I did a roundabout at the right o' way and headed back, cruising slow, I saw that it was indeed Alberta. From the street, in the fading light of a stormy evening, I couldn't tell whether her eyes were open or closed. But I braked my bike at the edge of her lawn and stood astride the crossbar looking her way, until she finally righted her head and weakly raised a hand in greeting.
She was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a flannel one, despite the heat, but I still caught a glimpse of the immaculate white cuff of bandage around her wrist. Her voice was weak and froggy, hard to hear at this range, when she said, "Hiya honey. Long time no see."
It was enough invitation for my eager heart. I leaned my bike against the old sugar maple in her front yard and made my way up the concrete steps to her front porch. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot, her mouth slack and pale, her skin as white as erasable bond. Even her usually exquisite curly black hair seemed to droop sadly.
"Come give us a hug, honey," she said in a hoarse whisper. "I sure need one."
I couldn't think of a thing I would rather do. I breathed in the smoke-and-soapy fragrance of her as I put my arms around her neck and pressed my cheek to hers.
"Still buddies?" she whispered, and I nodded my head, nestled against her face, without breaking our hug. In fact, I hugged her tighter still in response.
Then I released her and when I glanced at her from where I stood, rather woodenly, beside her chair, I saw her brush tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands, and once again I saw too the white cuffs of her bandages.
For the longest time, I just stood there beside and a little to the rear of her chair, with one hand straight down to my side, but with the other gently stroking her dark, curly hair, the way one might stroke a beloved cat—calmly, unhurriedly, repeatedly in a soothing, tranquil fashion. She just closed her eyes and sat there, still as could be, sniffling occasionally and brushing her cheeks with the backs of her hands.
We went on like that, the two of us, for the longest time, a magic moment, an interval of great intimacy between two people, age no longer an issue.
Then I said, "Don't worry, Alberta. It'll be okay."
She reached up, took my hand and held it with both of hers against her heart.
"I know it will, honey," she said, and then added, "as long as I've got you around, anyway."
We stayed like that for a while, she sitting, I standing, listening to the approaching thunder, knowing the storm was coming but not caring.
She said, "Honey, won't your Mom be worried about you?"
And just then, in the distance, over the gathering storm, we could hear my mother calling my name. "You're a real sweetie, honey," Alberta said, "but you'd better scoot. I don't want you to get into trouble."
On an impulse, I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, a peck, a child's kiss. But then too, a kiss like one a father might place on his little daughter's fevered brow.
"I'll be back tomorrow," I promised, the kiss burning on my lips.
"I know you will." She patted my hand and let it go.
The wind was kicking up dust devils and the sky was turning black fast. Up the street my mother was still shouting my name, straining hard to be heard above the wind and thunder.
"Coooomiiiiing!" I shouted back.
A big cold drop of rain splatted on top of my head. Another one thumped me on the chest, narrowly missing my yearning heart. I turned toward the porch, where Alberta was still sitting in her cane chair—but sitting forward now, on the edge, as if she were contemplating getting up, going in, moving on.
I ran over to my bike and put up the kickstand. A sheet of rain was sweeping the fields over by the elementary school and heading our way fast.
On a whim I shouted over the wind, “Alberta!”
"Wait for me!"
"What?" she asked, cupping her ear.
"I said, wait for me!" I cried at the top of my lungs.
Alberta smiled from the porch and brushed her cheeks with the back of one hand. With the other, she waved as I rode off toward home and I heard her call, "I will, honey! I'll try!"