I married John long after I had given up hope of marrying anyone. He was a kind and thoughtful man, a good companion after years of taking care of my mother. I guess you could say marrying him was more than I ever expected for myself. I didn’t have boys flocking around me when I was young. Now that I was thicker around the waist, with lines beginning to track my face, I knew my destiny.
My friend Betsy, who I’d known since fifth grade, insisted I come to dinner to meet her husband’s friend from work. She didn’t know much about him, only that he’d been divorced for six years, and her husband thought he was a great guy. The idea of a blind date was terrifying but Betsy wouldn’t take no for an answer. I know you’ll like him, she said. What do you have to lose?
She was right. He might not be anybody’s idea of Prince Charming, but after meeting him, I began to see a different life for myself. John was an attentive, soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humor. When he asked for my telephone number, I was elated.
We went to movies, not just action thrillers but dramas too, and dinner; he’d sometimes bring flowers. I told him not to since I worked in a florist shop but I loved the thought. On Sundays, we’d go for rides in the country and out for lunch. John wasn’t much of a talker but I was never this comfortable with a man before. Not that I had much experience.
One Sunday, six months after we started dating, we were finishing a pancake breakfast at the local IHOP, when he said he had a surprise for me. We were going to the Park of Roses in Columbus. It was a spectacular park with hundreds of rose varieties. John stopped in front of a bed of Red Beauties and suggested we sit on the bench next to an arbor. “Marjorie, I’m not a romantic man and there sure is no poetry in me, but I’ll do my best to make you happy. Would you consider marrying me?’ He took a ring out of his pocket. It was beautiful, a small diamond surrounded by a circle of emerald chips.
I said yes without thinking about it, he pulled me to my feet and kissed me in a way he hadn’t before. I thought I’d melt right into him and never wanted to let go. I felt that kiss course down my body. This man would be my husband. I would be loved.
Betsy told me he’d been married before. Not surprising when you marry someone a bit later in life but they didn’t have children. A blessing, I suppose. Although I wouldn’t have minded. Children would be easy to care for compared to my mother after her stroke.
He told me his ex-wife’s name was Honey, short for Henrietta. They’d been married fifteen years, every last one of them a nightmare. “The day the divorce papers were signed, was a day for the history books—free at last! I never realized what a mixed up girl she was. That’s why I still help her out if she’s in a bind. It’s nothing to worry about.” He pulled me close, “she isn’t you.”
It’s never easy being a second wife. You never know why people split up. You hear stories about what went wrong, but that doesn’t really cut to the heart of it. It only is a warning of traps to avoid. Most people probably don’t even know why their marriages failed; others don’t want you to know the real truth because in one way or another, they’re never free of their past.
Honey hovered in the background. She called John in spurts—not at all for months and then three, sometimes four times a week. She still needed him to tell her what to do about things. Should she sign another lease on her apartment, get a cat go to her mother’s fourth wedding? Nothing she couldn’t talk over with a friend. It was strange. Sometimes, though, she had a real reason for calling. Money. Small amounts on top of what he gave her. Not that alimony was part of the divorce decree. No. That was all John. He believed it was the right thing to do. A small price to pay for his freedom.
He always told me why she called but I still strained to hear his end of the conversation, listened to his tone rather than what they talked about. He said she needed more time than most to find her way. I’ll say! They’d been divorced for six years and separated four before that. She sure knew how to take advantage of his good nature.
My husband described her as being high strung. He said she tended to overreact to situations and things came harder to her than most people. He smiled, though, when he said she thought being theatrical was part of her charm.
I didn’t give a hoot what her charms were and knew we’d be better off if he wasn’t so ready to help her out. Sometimes he’d hang up the phone muttering. I wasn’t jealous as much as irritated. He did nothing to discourage her calls.
“John, this is getting out of hand. How long are you going to let her lean on you? You’d be doing her a favor by making her stand on her own two feet.”
“I wish I could, Margie, but she’s not ready. I know it’s hard for you to understand. She is so opposite you. Honey can’t even figure out how to use a can opener without making a major brouhaha over it.”
“Will she ever be ready, John?”
He shrugged. “Hope so.”
We’d been married a year when John pointed her out to me at the mall. She was looking in the jewelry store window and didn’t see us. Just as I expected, she was blonde and delicate looking. The way she looked fit the voice on the phone, one of those soft, raspy voices that junior high school girls practice to sound sexy.
It surprised me that he would be attracted to me after being married to her. In a way, I was relieved she was pretty. I thought, no problem, a woman that attractive will find herself another husband in no time flat. At least as soon as she stops whining.
We’d been married two years and Honey’s pattern of calling stayed the same. One night, she called when John was having dinner with his paint distributors. “Marjorie, it bothers me that I don’t know what you look like. It’s making me crazy to think every tall, dark-haired woman I see could be you. That’s all John would tell me. Meet me for a cup of coffee so we can get to know each other.”
“I don’t think….”
“Come on. I won’t bite. Just this once,” she cajoled.
I was too curious not to go. Maybe if I met her, I could help John get rid of her. He sure couldn’t do it by himself. So I told her yes, I’d meet her.
We went to a diner, had coffee and English muffins. The first thing I noticed about her was that she seemed really nervous, sometimes her hands shook so badly she had trouble lighting one cigarette off the last. John was right about her being high strung. She sure could work herself up over nothing.
“Oh yoo-hoo, waitress!” She snapped her fingers, angry that the poor girl didn’t run right over. “You could die before you’d get a refill in this dive. Where the hell is she going?”
It doesn’t take brains to know a waitress can’t make any money off a couple of women drinking coffee all night. Honey had the makings of a real brat.
Most of the time sitting there, I forgot about who she really was and how much it bothered me that she still called my husband. I believed her when she talked about all the plans she had. But then, she fell back to the past.
“I was a cheerleader, you know. For the varsity football team. That’s when Johnny got it bad for me. He was a running back. Ran like the wind. He wasn’t like the others who thought they were God’s gift, you know. He was shy and awkward and over the moon for me,” she beamed. “Those were the days, Marjorie. Don’t you miss high school and the friends you had then?”
“Honey, that was more than twenty years ago. I hardly remember it.” I tried to hide how pathetic I thought she was. You have to wonder about someone who talked about ancient history as part of ordinary conversation. It seemed like being prom queen was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“So tell me about your plans to move.” I coaxed. “I always thought it would be great to live in the hustle bustle.”
She smiled. “I’m going to get out of this dump of a town and move to Cleveland or Columbus. I need to make more money. Johnny doesn’t give me nearly enough.”
I bristled. “It seems to me John is very generous. Most ex-wives without children don’t get any alimony and all.”
“It seems to me that you don’t have any idea about me,” she sulked. “I’m not just some ex-wife he can leave in the dust. Johnny knows that. You may think it’s a lot of money but believe me, it’s crap.” She slammed her cup and the coffee puddled in the saucer.
I didn’t think she’d ever call me again and I had no intention of doing anything more than handing over the phone to John when she called, just like before.
Weeks after our coffee date, she called again. “Hi, Marjorie. It’s Honey. I hope I didn’t wake you too early on a Saturday.”
“No, I’m up.” Since she just hit John up for money again, I couldn’t imagine what she wanted. “John isn’t here.”
“I called to talk to you, Marjorie. You have to help me with something.”
“Excuse me?” I sat down on my kitchen chair.
“Don’t say no. You have such good taste. I could see that the time we went out. I saw two dresses at Browns and I can’t decide which one to buy for an important job interview I have Monday. The job could change my life. Everything has to be just right but I can’t decide which look I need to have,” she rambled on. “I simply cannot pick. I first saw them on Wednesday morning. I didn’t know which one was better so I thought I’d think about them overnight but when I went back to the store in the morning, the blue one seemed better than what I’d remembered. I still couldn’t settle on one so after I was there awhile, the saleswoman said she’d hold them and didn’t I want to come back.” Honey finally took a breath. “So I had them put them away for me. But when I went back…”
Ha! She had to be kidding. Nobody would ever look to me for fashion advice. “I’m sure either would do,” I interrupted. “You just have to make a good appearance at an interview, after all. It’s whether or not you can do the job that’s the important thing.”
“No,” she snapped. “You’re wrong. I have to look perfect. The right dress is everything. Any old dummy can answer phones and type,” she added, her voice brittle. “I have to look professional so they see this is a temporary step for me.”
The last thing in the world I wanted was to go shopping with her and I knew how thrilled John would be if I went. “Honey, I….
“Johnny never has to know. We can meet say in an hour. It won’t take long, I promise.” She pressed on, “I need you to do this little thing for me. That’s it. Look at the two dresses, tell me what you think. That’s all. Now one is …”
I quickly lost my patience. “For heavens sake, don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t tell John.”
“I only meant…”
“No, Honey. I’m busy today. Besides, I don’t know anything about fashion. ”
“That’s not true. Johnny always says,’ Marjorie is a girl who knows how to dress. And she can always make up her mind about things without a big fuss.’ ”
Sure he did. He urges me to go shopping. Treat myself to some new clothes. He came home from work one night with a new plush bathrobe for me to replace my old chenille, worn thin with bare patches. I never really noticed how ratty it was until I had the new one. “Honey, listen to me. I can’t go with you. That’s all there is to it.”
“You have to. I don’t know what I’ll do if you say no,” her voice insistent, becoming shrill. “If you refuse to come with me, I’ll probably go and pick the wrong dress and not get the job and then what will I do? I need this job.” she whimpered.
John wouldn’t talk about me to her. She had to be lying. Why, he never told me one lick more than he had to about her. To cut her off, I told her I’d meet her at 11:00 in the women’s department. In and out. Browns has nice dresses. It’s hard to go wrong.
When I got there, Honey was swirling around the women’s department in a blue cocktail dress. I’ve never seen a typist wearing anything like that to work. It looked like pretty pricey chiffon.
“Oh Marjorie,” she sang, calling attention to herself. The other shoppers couldn’t help notice her prancing around the racks of dresses. It looked like she brought in shoes, too. Blue suede heels. Two saleswomen nodded at me, probably relieved that someone might help bring this sale to a close.
“That’s the blue dress you like so much?”
“Yes,” she smiled, spun around and curtseyed. “It’s expensive but isn’t it divine?”
“Well, yes, it’s very pretty. A good color for you. Hmmm. But what about the other one?” I stammered.
Thank heavens she didn’t want me to go in the dressing room with her but there’d be no audience.
She came out in a polyester floral dress, perfect for working in an office. I was relieved there was no real choice to make. “Honey, it is perfect. Definitely an interview dress. Very professional.”
“You really think so?” she asked, crestfallen. “You’re not saying that because you’re jealous of how I look in the blue, are you?” She smiled a strange Bette Davis kind of smile. “Dreary Marjorie. Bet you don’t even own a pair of heels.”
That did it. What nerve. She was some piece of work. “The floral is a work dress, the blue isn’t. You wanted my opinion and that’s it. Buy the one you want.”
I stormed out, bumping into a young girl, who stood by the cash register watching the whole spectacle. I was livid—with myself, with her, even with John for keeping that psycho in our lives. I swore I’d never talk to her again. The odd look on her face as she skipped around the store in that dress and her meanness… I shuddered.
For about a week after the episode at Browns, I half expected it to be Honey every time the phone rang. My stomach tightened and my hands sweat. John was annoyed with me.
“Marjorie, answer the phone! You know the last thing I feel like doing after working at the store all day is talking on the phone.”
“I know, John, but what if it’s her?”
He looked up at me, about to say something, but shook his head and went back to reading his Patterson novel.
“What John, what were you going to say? Something about Honey’s calls?”
He barely looked up from his book and mumbled, “Not really.”
“Come on. Talk to me.”
“There isn’t much to say. It is what it is. We’re happy, aren’t we? Isn’t that what matters?”
“Of course, that matters. But it doesn’t fix the problem, does it?”
“No. I suppose it doesn’t. If there was a fix, I’d do it. You know that. What do you want me to say?”
“That you’ll get her out of our lives. I married you. Not you and her.”
He nodded. “I know that. I’d like nothing better. I hope you know that.”
“I don’t know how to do what you’re asking. She’s not malicious, she’s weak and neurotic. It’s better than it was. You can’t imagine how bad it was the first year after I left.” He looked past me.
“No, I can’t. Tell me.”
“Like now but screaming like a wild banshee. Calling a couple of times a day. Please, Marjorie. Let it drop.”
The situation was exasperating. As the days went by without a call, I relaxed. I didn’t have much to complain about. It was wedding season and work days flew. I loved the routine of our life. John always complimented me about the house. What pleasure he took in coming home to a good, hot meal. I loved how he came straight away to the kitchen without taking off his jacket to kiss me and look under the pot lids.
Something was missing, though. I wished we could go back to our Sunday dates when there was rarely a lull in our conversation.
The phone rang waking me out of a dead sleep. I thought it might be John calling from a trade show in Greenville.
“Hello,” I said, squinting at the clock that read 2:15. I realized instantly that something must be wrong. John would never call that late. My heart pounded. Please God. Don’t take him from me.
“I wore the wrong dress.”
“Excuse me?” I turned on the bedside lamp.
“I knew I should have bought the blue dress but you were so definite the other was better. I listened to you and didn’t get the job. You did it to me on purpose. You’ve ruined me.” Honey’s voice was almost unrecognizable.
Now fully awake, my heart pounded. “Honey? Do you know it’s the middle of the night?”
“I don’t care what time it is. I have nowhere to be tomorrow, thanks to you. First you take my husband and then…”
“Wait a minute. I didn’t even meet John until years after you were divorced. So don’t start making things up. And you’re blaming me for not getting a new job because of a dress? You think you weren’t hired because you didn’t wear a chiffon cocktail dress?” I asked, incredulous.
“You told me…” she repeated.
“I told you that one of the dresses was right for an office job. Period. You could have gotten the chiffon anyway. Besides, you said yourself when we had coffee you were going to get computer training. I bet you didn’t. That was probably the real reason you didn’t get the job.”
“NO. Don’t think you can get off the hook so easy. I know it was because of the dress. And you know it too. All my plans down the tubes because of you. Thanks a lot.” Honey crashed down the receiver.
I couldn’t fall back to sleep. There had to be a whole lot my husband wasn’t telling me about her. Reasons he still put up with her calls. Was she crazy or evil? She was sweet, hopeful one moment and raging the next. A cold shiver ran down my spine. We’d never be rid of her.
I met Betsy for coffee the next morning.
“Betsy, do you know anything about John’s ex-wife? Anything John might have told Bill.”
“The only thing I know is that she used to call a lot at work when they separated and the day the divorce was final, he took everyone in the store out for a beer. Seems like she really dragged her feet.”
“I met her.”
“You did? Do tell.” Betsy put down her cup.
I told her about our two meetings and the phone call during the night.
“Are you afraid of her? Maybe you should tell John.”
I rubbed my temples. “Should I be afraid? And what exactly should I be afraid of?” “Well, my friend, you’ve certainly gone and got some intrigue in your life. You happy with John, otherwise?”
“Happy?” I shrugged. “Maybe I don’t know what that is.”
There was no pattern to her calls. The phone rang more some weeks than others — the time of day was erratic. She still called John for money, but never talked to him anymore about anything else. As far as I knew, she still wasn’t working.
Honey called for simple reasons: asked me how to make soup, about a TV show, a cold she couldn’t shake, how much she loved spring rain. It was peculiar. She’d say her piece, wait for me to answer her, and hang up. Calm.
One day, months after her tirade over the dress, she called breathless. “Marjorie, there is a bat in my chimney, I can hear him flutter. I’m so scared.”
“Go get the super to get rid of him.”
“How can I leave? I’m in the closet. It’ll get me on my way to the door.”
“No, he won’t. Just go quickly.”
I heard the phone plop on the floor.
Waiting for her to come back, I opened the refrigerator, took out vegetables and meat for dinner. What would I do with a bat in the house? Chase it with a broom or panic? A bat during the day was trouble. Rabies. But she probably didn’t know that. Maybe if she took care of it, it would give her confidence. I hung up the phone.
Over dinner, I told John about Honey and the bat. “I doubt it. In the old days, she’d have these so-called emergencies all the time. Usually turned out to be nothing but boy, she’d be hysterical.”
“I think I’ll call her. What’s her number?”
He looked up, “What? Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. To make sure she’s okay? She sounded terrified.”
John put down his fork. “It’ll give her the wrong idea.”
“Then, you call her.”
“Are you kidding? No way.”
“What’s different about that and you giving her money? Seems about the same to me.”
“Do what you think, Margie. To change the subject for a minute, we’re not going to be able to go on our trip Sunday. I have to cover for Bill.”
“Sorry. What can I do?”
“Say no. You have plans, too.”
I got ready for bed and decided to call her. What the hell?
“Honey, its Marjorie”
“Are you all right? What happened to the bat?”
“It WAS a bat. I waited outside all afternoon for the super to come home and when he got here, he shooed him out with a broom and beat it! Something was wrong with it. It couldn’t seem to fly without banging into things. Then he called the health department. I thought I’d be too scared to be here tonight. You know, night is their time but I stuffed the fireplace full of newspaper so I’d hear a commotion and could run. I also have a baseball bat and bought tear gas.”
“Sounds like you handled it well. Good night, Honey.”
“I did, didn’t I?”
There were no more outbursts like the dress fiasco. No question, she wasn’t quite right in the head, but I began to think of her as someone all alone in the world, needing to hear a voice. Part of me liked the way she looked up to me and I tried to talk myself into the idea it was okay. Once I almost called her to see if she was all right after I hadn’t heard from her for a couple of weeks. I dialed but then hung up before she could answer. As the phone rang, I remembered the breathless edge in the way she spoke that made me uneasy.
I was embarrassed to talk to any of the girls at the shop about her. They’d probably laugh at me for being a fool for putting up with it. Betsy told me she was worried. She didn’t say it outright but she thought it was a little weird. What she did ask me was if I was sorry I married John so fast.
Good question. John walked on eggshells, said he hoped I didn’t mind too much, that he loved my good nature. Most wouldn’t have the heart, he said.
Sometimes when the phone rang, I wanted it to be her. I tried to sweep that thought out of my mind. I wouldn’t admit that to a living soul. Maybe I was the one who was nuts.
I didn’t want Honey to be our main conversation topic but there she was, a looming shadow in our home. I promised myself I wouldn’t mention her but couldn’t help myself. I became an inquisitor. “Why doesn’t she work? Doesn’t she have any friends or family to take her in? Is she emotionally disturbed?” He was always willing to answer but never shed the kind of light on the situation that would be meaningful. Most of his answers were shrugs and she does or she says she will or he doesn’t know. I hated to admit it but sometimes his evasiveness reminded me of her.
He told me about Honey’s family, about how her father was a drinker and she grew up dirt poor; how thin-skinned she was, that she would cry if somebody looked at her the wrong way. She had trouble holding down a job, was easily flustered and disorganized. But none of what he told me explained why she couldn’t pull herself together and grow up. This much was easy to understand. He felt guilty for leaving such a pathetic creature to fend for herself and this was his penance. I just couldn’t figure out how he didn’t know she’d always be trouble and married her in the first place.
Our life went on uneventfully. It was hard to believe how fast time was flying. We’d been married five years. We’d found our rhythm. Sometimes, I wished we’d have a fuller life— friends, vacations, Sunday drives. But I adjusted, had plenty of projects to keep me busy. Honey called or didn’t call and it didn’t matter much. One Saturday morning, we were having breakfast when the doorbell rang. And rang and rang.
I was alarmed. “Who could that be?” John rushed passed me to pull back the living room drapes to see who it was.
John warned, “It’s Honey. Don’t answer it.”
I hesitated but the bell kept ringing. “You knew it would eventually come down to this, didn’t you? Why is she here and what is wrong with her? Tell me, John. I ask and ask and you never say anything that explains it. Just spit it out.”
“Trust me, Marjorie. Don’t answer the door. One foot in our house and our life is …” his voice trailed off.
“And what? Our life becomes what?”
“What? Haven’t you seen and heard enough for yourself? She’ll ruin our peace. I’ve done everything I know how to avoid this…”
“Avoid what? Maybe we could use a little less peace.” I couldn’t stand it. I knew the ringing wouldn’t stop. She wouldn’t go away no matter how long we’d make her wait. There was nothing else to do but find out what she wanted and get rid of her. I opened the door and there she stood holding a small suitcase.
She looked like an orphaned child you’d see on Save the Children. “Please,” she said quietly looking at the ground. “Let me stay with you for a while. I can’t be alone anymore. I have no place else to go. Please.”
I turned to look at John. He didn’t say anything, but all I tried to learn from him about her, was in his eyes — a mix of fear and misery and fate. In an instant, I realized the money, the phone calls, the ambivalence, was all he was capable of. He knew all along it would come down to this and was leaving it up to me.
A little while couldn’t hurt until she got back on her feet. Maybe we could get her help— a therapist or job counselor or something. What else could we do?
You never know when your life is going to take a turn down an unknown path. Sometimes I wonder if my mistake was marrying this man so quickly or going for the first cup of coffee with Honey, or whether she’s come to be the child I’d never have. Sometimes I enjoy her company; other times I feel like a sap.
Now there are three of us sitting at the breakfast table. I cook breakfast and pack John’s lunch as I always have. He kisses me goodbye and tells Honey he hopes she finds a job today which of course, she won’t. She’s taking a class at the community college that has consumed her. All she does is study. I bet she’s copied the entire textbook into her notebook three times already. I get ready for work as she does the breakfast dishes. And as I always do, encourage her — find some connection at school, begin to live. Make it a good day. She nods.
Some people can’t leave their pasts behind. And others are grateful to have someone to share their life with, no matter how bizarre the circumstances.
AOIS 21 ANNUAL 2014
Miranda stood at the curb looking at the house, a house similar to many of the others she had lived in before, those dilapidated two-family houses with heaving front porches, wide doorways and peeling paint. This one was a faded yellow trimmed with dark green that leaned to the left. She had never lived in a house that wasn’t sinking in one way of another.
It was her second year of law school. The student housing, with its crowded dormitories and annoying roommates, left her gasping for air. With the housing allowance allotted to her as a student on full scholarship, Miranda saw one rat hole after another but she was determined to live off campus.
Discouraged, she stood in front of the one place in the classifieds that had to be a mistake, a bargain rent she could almost afford, including utilities. The last listing in her price range. She walked up the stairs to the front door and rang the bell. Miranda heard a rattling of slats in the window blinds and slow thumping steps moving toward the door. An elderly woman appeared.
“Hello, dear.” Miranda extended her hand. The woman grasped it firmly with one hand, holding the cane handle with the other.
“Mrs. Polanski? I’m Miranda Stone. I called you this morning to look at the apartment for rent.”
“Come in. I was boiling water for tea. Make yourself comfortable while I fix tray. I’d like we should talk before we go upstairs.”
Miranda’s eyes followed her and she walked slowly through the living room and dining room to the kitchen doorway. Her back and shoulders were ramrod straight, despite the limp. Dressed in navy wool, she had white hair upswept into a twist held by a pearl comb. Cameo earrings dangled from her earlobes.
The living room had overstuffed blue velvet furniture. The backs and arms were covered with heavy brocade print scarves. On the coffee table was a foreign-language newspaper. A grand piano stood on the other side of the room; the keys were yellowed and chipped. The closed top, covered with lace, displayed sepia-toned pictures in ornate frames, two silver candlesticks, paperweights, and a collection of porcelain dolls.
Many of the dolls couldn’t keep their eyes open; their bisque faces were discolored; their legs were cracked, and some had broken fingers. Most were international dolls dressed in costume, but in the center was a delicate ballerina, surrounded by a row of dolls holding musical instruments.
Photographs hung on one wall. Each stiffly posed unsmiling face had its own frame. The eyes of a young girl seemed to be looking straight at Miranda. She shuddered, backing away from the morbid faces and hit her ankle on the end table. As she rubbed it to massage away the pain, she looked again, this time noticing that the individual frames were encased as a group in a large, rectangular frame. Beneath it was a wide ledge holding a row of candles.
Mrs. Polanski called out, “Miranda, dear, please come help me with the tray.”
She walked through the dining room quickly looking at the table and the crowded china closet. Maybe, Mrs. Polanski was an antiques dealer, she thought.
The kitchen was also old-fashioned, but there was no time to look around. Mrs. Polanski gestured for her to pick up the tray, eager to get back to the living room.
She sank heavily into the chair, wincing as she lifted her bad leg onto the ottoman. “Ah, doing simple things can sometimes take so much, “she said.
“Are you in pain?”
“Ah, not pain. “She waved her hand. “Just ache. Bad hip from fall. Sometimes even sidewalk has hidden trap,” she laughed. “Have some tea. There is sugar and lemon.”
Miranda poured the tea into the tall glasses on the tray. She held one out, her fingers at the rim, the glass steaming. Mrs. Polanski held it as if it were a glass of ice water. She took a sugar cube and placed it inside her cheek, taking a sip. “Ah, good. I made butter cookies. Take one. Please.”
Miranda bit into the cookie, sinking her teeth into a buttery sweetness she’d never tasted before. The cookies were still warm from the oven.
“Well, Miranda. You are here to see about the apartment. So let’s not beat about the bush. I never did quite understand this American expression but… so. I would think smart girl like you would think why so cheap. A palace it isn’t. But nice enough with plenty of space. This is situation. The house is big. I don’t need to rent upstairs but I don’t like it empty. I like to know the creaks I hear in the night belong to someone I know. So money is not so important as who is up there.”
She paused to take a sip of tea. “A couple from the medical school just moved out. Nobody ever stays put anymore. Darling children. Helped me out sometimes. Not too much, but sometimes.”
Nodding, Miranda said, “You can’t expect to do everything you used to.”
Mrs. Polanski looked her over. “You are young thing to be living alone. With me, it’s something else altogether. How old are you if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Old enough,” she laughed shaking out her ponytail, her blonde hair now reaching below her shoulders. “Do I look older now?”
Mrs. Polanski smiled, holding a palm to each cheek. “Oy, a mature woman I have here before my eyes.” She had a beautiful face, her eyes a sharp blue, her ruddy skin, heavily wrinkled but rosy.
“Ah, not so young, you think!” Mrs. Polanski smiled. “Your family here, yes?”
Miranda smiled. “No. No family here. I am on scholarship and need a quiet space to get my work done.”
“It’s lonely having no family around you, she muttered. “Another cookie?”
“Thank you. Just one more. They are delicious. Then, may we take a look upstairs?”
“Of course. You are here for business, not to vaste time with old woman.”
“Oh no, Mrs. Polanski. I’m just curious to see what the apartment looks like,” she said, hoping she didn’t blow her chances.
“Okay. We talk business. Upstairs, the layout is same. Living room, dining room, bedrooms, kitchen, and back porch. It’s furnished. Not full like this, but my own furniture. Long time ago, my son lived there and he left everything. He is modern and doesn’t like old things. My tenants before like it furnished for no extras and it was easier than trying to get rid of. Is that a problem?”
“It’s furnished?” Miranda opened her eyes wide. “No, it’s not a problem since I don’t own a single thing,” she laughed.
“Ah, a girl at the start of life. Good. My main thought is to have somebody I like up there. I need someone quiet. But I was once a young girl, too, and a pretty one so I was told, so a boyfriend is okay. Just not to live. Love is life’s big treasure.”She paused, lost in her own thoughts for a moment. “But I decide who lives in my house. Gnug, enough, you want to see?”
She reached into her pocket. “Here is the key. I’ll save my leg the stairs. One key for both doors. Take your time. Then you ask questions when you come back down.”
Miranda took the keys and darted up the stairs. Opening the top door, she walked into a living room with an old couch, chair and a coffee tables etched with deep scratches. The walls and windows were bare. Unlike the downstairs flat, light streamed in through the large front windows. Looking out the window at the narrow street and closely connected houses, she saw only a little boy riding a bike with training wheels. Despite the warm day, there was no one sitting idly on front porches. Not like home where that is all they do.
The first bedroom was empty but the back room had a desk set against a window overlooking a small yard with flowerbeds. A picture of a smiling young boy and girl standing in front of a farmhouse was on the desk. The other walls had bookshelves jammed with books and papers, some in English but many others looked German or Polish and have the curvy scroll of the newspaper she saw. Sliding her hand across the nicked desktop, Miranda imagined how good it would feel to live by herself. Finally. The flat was five blocks from school and only twenty-five dollars more than her stipend.
She locked the door and ran down the stairs. Mrs. Polanski’s door was ajar, so she knocked before walking in. Still sitting in the chair, looking up at the pictures, she was lost in thought. She said softly, “My brother Georgie, now, he could have been a lawyer. So smart and such a good talker.”
Aware that Miranda was back, she smiled at her, “You darling girl, your mother must kvell, must be so proud of you, her daughter to be a lawyer. So, you like?”
“Like it? I love it! It’s more than I ever hoped for. But there is a small problem.”
“As reasonable as the rent it, it is twenty-five dollars a month more than my housing allowance so I would have to pay the balance during the month from my job at the library. I get paid…”
“Maybe,” Mrs. Polanski interrupted, “instead, you help me sometimes. Nothing too much. Pickup my medicine, a few things at the market. Help like that.”
Miranda nodded. She needed every dollar she earned.
“So good. We have no more problem. We have deal. I like you, my shayna meidele.”
“What does that mean, shay mei…?”
“It’s a compliment in Yiddish language. I was born in Poland so I speak Polish, also a little Russian and German, but my mama spoke Yiddish to me and that is what she called me. It means pretty girl, Miranda. Shayna meidele.”
Miranda smiled and sat back in the chair.
“We’ll have more tea to make deal. I want no lease because if it doesn’t work out like we think, I want no trouble. We just part friends. All right, then, raise your glass for tea toast. Miranda Stone. Velcome.”
Half dozing, Miranda jumped to the thud of the cane, tapping on the downstairs ceiling. Sprawled out on the living room chair, she fought to keep her eyes open to focus on the case she was to present to the class in the morning. She must have dozed off. Jarred by the tapping, she woke up and saw it was only 9:30. Thank heavens she woke me, Miranda thought.
This was how Mrs. Polanski, or Lena, as she now insisted upon, called her. A couple of taps meant come down. If Miranda didn’t come it wasn’t a problem. But if Lena really needed help or for Miranda to run and errand or do something the next day, she phoned. Most of the cane taps were for company, with invented excuses to bring her down.
Miranda slipped a sweater on over her t-shirt. A half hour, then back upstairs, she thought. Lena was at the door. She was still dressed. Miranda saw tears drying on her face.
The candles, sitting on the shelf beneath the photo wall were lit as they were every night and the teakettle whistled from the kitchen. Looking at the piano, Miranda saw the ballerina was gone and there was a farm girl with thick braids in its place. How many dolls could she have, Miranda wondered.
“Come, kinde, have a cup of tea with a lonely old woman.”
As was their routine, Miranda would fix the tray with whatever she had to go with the tea while Lena sat in her big chair facing the pictures. Everything was prepared—the tea glasses, sugar for Lena, lemon for Miranda, and for tonight pound cake.
Settled with her tea, Miranda asked, “Lena, you were crying. What’s wrong?”
“Were you learning?”
“Trying to. I have a presentation to make for my 11:00 class and I’m falling asleep over it. Tell me a story to wake me up. Please!” she laughed, begging her.
“Ah, you remind me of my boychuk, when we lived in Cracow, begging me for stories and songs because he didn’t want to go to sleep.” Lena began to sing a lullaby in a rich sweet voice. When she sang, it was always in Polish. Miranda closed her eyes, listening to the soothing melody, so unlike the sounds of her childhood.
She smiled when finished. “Ah, my children loved that song.”
“Children?” Miranda repeated. Lena only told Miranda what she wanted to. Miranda would ask questions and Lena would talk about whatever she wanted as if she didn’t hear her. Miranda could never ask her what she really wanted to know, how she came to America, whether she was in Europe during World War II, what happened to her family.
But even less probing questions remained unanswered. Why were there sometimes different dolls on the piano, how many did she have, why was she always rearranging them, and where the son who used to live upstairs. Lena ignored them and only heard what she wanted to.
“Ya, the children’s favorite song. It’s a Polish folk story, “ Lena said. My children loved my singing, ‘Sing more,’ they would say. ‘Please can I sit in your lap?’ My sister, Hannah, was a teacher, too. She didn’t have a voice like me. But she danced. Very graceful, my Hannah.”
Lena was looking at the pictures on the wall, faces illuminated by the candles. She traveled somewhere far from here. Miranda took a sip of tea, suddenly needing to get away, suffocated by the wretched smell of the yellow candles, wanting only to get back upstairs to her books, her cheeks blazing hot as they always did when she needed to bolt.
Lena finally spoke. “We used to take the children to a walled garden for recess. Inside was magic. Gardens of all kinds, Miranda. Old trees, good for hiding games, one with a sturdy limb the children could sit and dream on. I tried to plant a garden here,” she said gesturing toward the back of the house. “But never same. Different earth. Different light. I grow good flowers. Special roses. Green thumb, some say. What this means green thumb? Idiotic American talk. The irises I grow are close to home garden but the rest,” she waved her hand, dismissing them, “just flowers.”
Miranda, nodding, concentrated on slowing down her breath, relaxing the knot in her stomach.
“Back to story, I would calm children with story before it was time to go home. Make up fantastic stories of horses that could fly, magic fairies in the forest. They would call out the names of their favorites, but each time I tell new because I make up.”
She continued, wistful, “That garden. So beautiful. My husband proposed marriage to me there. Ah, so young and in love, thinking life would always be sweet, just as at that moment. A cruel joke,” she spat. Waving her hand to dismiss Miranda, “It’s late, work hard but be happy girl.”
She closed her eyes, signaling the end of the tea party. Miranda gathered up the tea tray, tiptoed to the kitchen and then back past Lena, whose slackened face was pale. Miranda hesitated at the candles. Lena let them burn out each night. They were flickering low in their glass jars, safe to leave. She locked the door handle and went upstairs, eager now to tackle Bowman v. State of Ohio.
It was a sunny Saturday morning, warm for late October. Too beautiful to spend in the library with a study group, she mused. Miranda was on the back porch finishing her coffee when she heard voices in the driveway. She couldn’t hear what Lena was saying but her tone was irritated. Maybe she was talking to a repairman.
She went back inside, rinsed her cup, grabbed her books, and went down the stairs onto the front porch. The man that she must have been talking to was unloading packages from a minivan parked in the driveway.
He smiled at her, “You must be Miranda,” he said, extending his hand.
She looked puzzled.
“All her talk, talk, talk, and I bet she never mentioned me. I’m her son, Benjamin.”
“She mentioned a son when I first looked at the apartment. But I never thought…”
“That he lived in town,” he finished her sentence. ”Yup, right here with a wife and child. My sister moved away. Lives in Colorado. But then you don’t really count until you have a candle,” he mumbled.
“Excuse me, what did you say?” Miranda asked.
“Oh, nothing.” Benjamin replied.
“She doesn’t really talk much about her family.”
Benjamin was slight, had dark curly hair, sharp blue eyes like Lena’s and the same ruddy complexion. He grabbed up the shopping bags, leaving the tools on the porch. “Let me get this in before she refuses the meat telling me it’s spoiled because I was too slow.”
“Nice meeting you, Benjamin.”
“You, too.” He paused. “Listen, Miranda. I’m going to give you my phone number if anything comes up. Got a pen?”
She opened her backpack and pulled out a pen and notebook. “Okay, shoot.” Miranda wrote it down on the inside cover.
“Keep it safe,” he said. “And don’t ever hesitate to call. My wife’s name is Ruthie.” He held the screen door open with his knee.
Miranda held the door while he picked up the third bag. Once he was in the house, she stood on the porch for a moment waiting to hear voices, but all was quiet except the rustle of the bags.
She looked at her watch and sprinted down the stairs across the grass. She had ten minutes to get to the library.
Classes were over for Thanksgiving break. Miranda had put off her mother, who wept for her to come home, promising everything would be different, that it wasn’t fair, cutting them all off like that. They needed her. Reluctantly, she called her mother to let her know not to expect her, holding the phone away from her ear, trying not to listen to the railing on the other end. She decided if she had to acknowledge the holiday at all, she would go home with one of her study partners, Robin. They decided to wait to travel Thanksgiving morning to avoid the traffic. And one less day of family time, whether it was hers or not, was fine with Miranda.
Robin and Miranda caught a Billy Crystal movie to celebrate the break from school. She was still smiling as she turned the key in the front door. Lena’s door was partially opened. She was chatting with someone. Good, she won’t need anything from me, Miranda thought.
“Ah, Miranda, you’re home,” she called out. “Come in and say hello to Harriet.” Lena smiled. “We went to a farmer’s market. Bought too much. Here take some fruits.”
“No, thank you, Lena. I’m going away for the holiday tomorrow.”
“Then take for your family. Harriet, she’s a beautiful girl, yes?”
Miranda took the bag Lena pushed into her hands. “If I don’t see you, I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving and I’ll be back Sunday night.”
“Good-bye! Safe trip!” Lena called out gaily.
Miranda went upstairs, packed her bag, watched some TV and went to sleep. She woke up to a foul smell. Grabbing the clock, she saw it was 3:10. The smell was nauseating. It was far worse than those candles. The stench wasn’t that of a fire, but something was burning. Oh my God, she thought, if the house isn’t on fire yet, it will be. I’ve got to get out.
Miranda’s heart pounded hard and fast. Her breath was shallow. She stepped down on the cold floor and wiped bead of sweat from her forehead. Grabbing her jeans, she missed the leg hole but finally managed to get them on. What should she do? Call the police? The fire department?
“Ayahahahahahaha.” A slow cry. It didn’t sound human, more like a feral cat, and it was coming from downstairs, from the front of the house.
Benjamin. He said to call anytime. Yes. His number? Where was it? Inside the cover of one of her notebooks. Miranda turned the backpack upside down. All the books fell to the floor. One by one, she opened the front covers, looking. There. With trembling fingers, she dialed.
One ring…two..three…four. What should she do if they didn’t answer? She let it ring and ring. Finally, there was a sleepy hello on the other end. “This better be good.” A male voice.
“Benjamin?” Miranda asked
“Yes, who is this?”
It’s Miranda. Miranda Stone, your mother’s tenant. There is a terrible smell coming from downstairs and weird sounds and banging and I don’t know what to do. Should I call the police? I’m afraid to go down but what if the house if on fire?”
Benjamin sighed. “It’s okay. Don’t panic. I’ll be right over. Ten minutes. You did the right thing by calling me. Listen to me carefully, Miranda. Don’t call anyone. Get dressed and go downstairs, in case there is a fire. If you don’t want to go in, just wait for me outside. I’ll be right there. Don’t call anyone, you hear me?”
“Miranda, are you still there? I’m going to hang up and come over. Answer me.”
More noise, then, a crash.
“Yes. Please hurry,” she whispered.
Missing the cradle when she hung up the phone, she left it, zipped up her jeans, threw her books back in the bag and grabbed the suitcase she was going to bring to Robin’s. She went down the stairs three at a time.
The door to Lena’s flat was closed. Miranda stood in front of it for a long minute before knocking. Forget it. She didn’t want to go in anyway. She was safer on the porch. Dropping her things, she cupped her hands around her eyes, pressing close to the window. The slats of the blinds were open just wide enough for Miranda to peer in.
Lena’s long white hair hung loose, flowing to her waist. She was in her bathrobe. There was a wagon in the middle of the living room. It was lined with a blanket, the paperweights from the piano and her purchases from the farmers market — apples, potatoes, and bread. Lena was methodically dressing the dolls an gently placing them into the wagon. Miranda couldn’t hear her but she could see she was talking to them.
Behind Lena, it looked as if all the dolls that were standing on the piano had been swept off in a single motion. Maybe with the large stick that was lying on the floor. There were heaped on the floor, broken into pieces. Arms and legs were separated from their bodies. There were gouges in the porcelain, and the doll on the top of the pile had smoking hair. That was the terrible smell. She had set the doll’s hair on fire.
Lena ignored the jumbled mess. She cradled the dancing doll in her arms. Miranda could hear her now. She was singing that Polish lullaby. The only word Miranda could make out was Hannelah, which Lena kept murmuring. When the song was over, she put the doll on the floor by the wall of photos and covered her completely with one of the scarves from the couch as if she had just died. Her motions were calm and steady.
She the looked at the dolls in the wagon, smiled sadly at them and said clearly, “Come, kinde, I keep you safe now.” She pinned up her hair in a single motion and took off her robe. She was fully dressed.
Benjamin pulled up, shutting the headlights off as he turned into the driveway. He was at Miranda’s side in an instant. “Where are we?” he asked. “Is the wagon prepared for escape? Has the dancer died? Watch the front door,” he said, wearily.
Miranda looked at him, her mouth wide open. “She’s done this before?”
“Many times. She won’t remember in the morning, though. It will only be a dream, just like all the others.”
At that moment, the door opened. Lena turned to face the wagon, her fingers to her lips, motioning to the dolls to be quiet. She turned around and jumped when Benjamin put his arm around her but his gentleness quieted her. He said something in Yiddish to soothe her. Turning to Miranda, Lena gripped his arm, whispering in Yiddish. Her tone implied instructions. She spoke straight at her but without a hint of recognition in her eyes. Miranda understood that she was a stranger who must be trusted. Lena put the wagon handle in Miranda’s hand and turned with Ben to go back into the house.
Before they did, he said quietly,” Don’t believe it when people tell you about survivors. There were a few but most are walking shadows living between two worlds.” He looked down at the old lady, clinging to him, “Frozen to us, saving what little is left for the rest of the world. But,” he kissed her forehead, “one day I finally understood.
They disappeared into the house. Miranda sat on the porch a long time before she went up to bed, listening to the sounds of Benjamin sweeping up the remains of Lena’s foiled rescue.
When Miranda returned from her Thanksgiving holiday, Lena wanted to know how her family had liked her fruits. Benjamin expected her to move out as the others had, but Miranda had no desire to leave her landlady. She lived in the upstairs flat of Lena’s house through that year, the remainder of law school, and her first job, long past the time when it was all she could afford, having found something she hadn’t known she was looking for.
A young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up, not far from Goethe’s beloved Weimar, in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald. He was finally free but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again.
Elie Weisel, The Perils of Indifference, Millennium Lecture Series, April 1999
The Landlady was first published in paperplates