R. J. Keefe

The Alicia Letters

I

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Dear Muggsy,

Since they say you like letters, Iím glad Iíve got a real reason to write one: Donít lose my yearbooks! Especially the 1939 one - I read in the Alumnae News that itís unaccountably rare. Make sure nothing happens to them! I canít believe I left them behind. We were about ten miles down the Interstate before I missed them, and I couldnít ask Joe to turn around and go back. (He would have said, ďMiss Alicia, weíll miss dinner, so Iíll come back for them tomorrow,Ē which would have been a lot of extra trouble for him, so I didnít say anything.) I wouldnít be worried under normal circumstances, since youíve always been so careful with things. But what with other people in and out of your room all the time, anything could happen. Please have Janiece (sp?) put them in a safe place until I figure out how to get them back. Iím sorry to be so stupid. Iím probably the one who should be in a home.

When you get right down to it, though, I am in a home. Itís a very nice home, and I can go where I please, more or less, and nobody enters my room without my permission. But itís not really private, not like the apartment in town. I used to come home from work and lock the door and forget the world! Now I always have to watch out what Iím wearing, and of course the drinking is very different. I will concede, without admitting or denying anything, that I couldnít handle life on my own any more. But I do miss the privacy.

Do you remember Douglas Tierney? I know you saw him a few times when he was a boy - did you ever seen him grown-up? Anyway, itís his house. Heís a distant cousin - very distant. We wouldnít have known him or his parents at all if we hadnít all lived in Bronxville. I went to school with his mother, but she wasnít the relation; the man she married was. This is giving me a headache. But if Iím going to be an inmate in Douglasí Home For Troubled Distant Cousins Iíd probably better get this all down pat so that I can explain my position, if anybody asks.

The only thing I remember about Douglas as a boy is that he was crazy about the secret passages at the Elm Rock house. He was said to be crazy about me, too, but I never could understand this because Iím no good with babies and have never known what to say to them. I talked to Douglas just the way Iím talking to you. His mother didnít like it. She claimed that it was rude of him to imitate me, but really I think she thought it was rude of me to talk to Douglas as an adult. I never knew about the imitations. Marion told me once, unnecessarily in my opinion, that he used to arch his eyebrows in imitation of me when Iím talking. Since Iíve never talked to a mirror - I may be a mess, but Iím not a nut - I donít know anything about arching eyebrows. Do I?

Itís a good thing he liked me, though, because Iíd probably be a bag lady in New York if he hadnít come and rescued me and brought me back to his great big house here in Brewster, giving me a huge room in my own wing - over the garages, itís true, but very quiet. He said that it had once been a servantsí wing, with lots of tiny rooms, but that the last people who had the house cleared out the space and used it as a playroom for their children. There are still a few nursery touches that Douglas assures me heís going to fix when the contractors are finished with the bathroom. The main thing is that Iíve got my own entrance. I could go downstairs right now, let myself out, slip into the garage and drive off, and nobody would see me. If only I could drive, that is. You were always after me to learn but it never seemed necessary. Do you think Iím too old now? I could also let myself out for a nice long walk.

Douglas has no visible means of support, and for reasons that I wonít go into here, I believe heís in some shady profession, something to do with contraband or the black market. Heís a perfect gentleman himself, but I think that only makes him more suspicious. His father was well off, but I donít think he could have left Douglas enough money to live like this without supplement. Besides, Douglas is obviously busy at something over in that barn of his. Heís not sitting around all day watching television - far from it. Perhaps heís self-employed in some thoroughly respectable way, but in that case I think he would talk about it a little. Itís odd not to talk about what you do. In all other ways heís a normal enough. He pays the bills on time (Iíve seen the envelopes) and doesnít get lost. That was the problem with me. I used to get so lost! Sometimes it would be Monday and the only way Iíd know it would be from looking out the window and seeing all the men on Park Avenue hailing taxis. Then Iíd have to get dressed in a hurry, and then forget something on my way out the door.

So far as I know, Douglas has never been married, and he doesnít appear to be involved with anyone. I suppose thatís a little strange, but who am I to talk?

There are servants. Mary and Joe. Mary cooks and Joe is a handy-man-cum-butler. Theyíre married and theyíre very nice to me, but I have to watch myself in front of them - theyíre not like Douglas; theyíre always very much in this world. Sometimes I think their favorite pastime is watching me. They donít mean any harm. Still - no privacy with them around. When Mother died, I felt I had to live up to Iris, whoíd been with us since before the folks gave up the Elm Rock house, and it was an awful strain. I was secretly - stupidly - happy when she retired. You thought I ought to teach her how to pay the bills, I remember - you foresaw the trouble Iíd have. But privacy was more important. So now Iím here. It could be worse.

Then thereís Douglasí secretary. Since I donít know what Douglas does, I donít know why he has a secretary. The secretaryís name is Mr. Marshall. Thatís what Douglas calls him, and Iíve never heard his first name. The nomenclature made me wonder at first if they werenít in fact partners, but pretty soon I realized that Douglasí formality with Mr. Marshall is a way of keeping him at armís length, for Mr. Marshall all but adores Douglas. I canít tell how old he is. Heís very thin and very neat, kind of a nun in a suit. He looks at me sweetly, but I know he disapproves of me. Iím sure he thinks Douglas should be sainted for rehabilitating his ancient non-aunt.

Then thereís an adventuress who comes from time to time to spend long weekends. I canít help liking her, even though I know she doesnít like me, because sheís got the most beautiful English way of speaking. I want to close my eyes and just listen to the sound, no matter what sheís actually saying. Most of what she says I canít understand anyway - which is why I call her an adventuress. Sheís after something. I thought she was after Douglas at first, naturally; heís eligible. But since all they talk seriously about is Ďappointmentsí and Ďdeliveries,í I donít think theyíre interested in one another that way. As for her not liking me, I long ago concluded that the better sort of English people donít like anybody - it really doesnít occur to them.

Her name is Amanda Lockwood and she says sheís from Northamptonshire. She seems to get back home from time to time, between her visits to us, anyway, because sheís always got a new batch of stories about Haverstraw the gardener or the vicarís wife (whoís apparently in the vanguard of political correctness). Amanda makes great fun of them all and professes to hate visiting, but I suppose if it werenít for these visits she wouldnít have much to talk about. American topics bore her to death (ďto death, darlingĒ - just as if she were Tallulah Bankhead). She does follow the celebrities, though; sheís a veritable storehouse of lurid and salacious stories about the rich and famous, and it would make you laugh to hear Douglas clear his throat at the dinner table, to warn Amanda off from being indelicate - in front of me!

Iíve already settled into a routine. No matter what time I get up in the morning, I donít get dressed until lunchtime, and then I go downstairs and say my Ďgood mornings.í I spend as much of the afternoon downstairs as I can. If the weatherís good I take a long walk. Sometimes there are outings to the village or the mall (the mall is horrible, but Iím fascinated by it), and we have been to New York twice. We have dinner at eight. Usually there are guests - Douglas knows a lot of people. After the usual after-dinner routines, I say my Ďgood nightsí and come back upstairs. At some point around midnight I get into bed and watch television. When I begin to feel sleepy, I press a button on the remote control that sets the TV to go off in an hour. I try not to look at the clock and see how late it is. Thatís my routine.

I had to work out a routine before they would let me come see you. It is the only thing that Douglas has actually told me I had to do. I was so mad at being ordered around, even by him, that I just paid no attention for a while. When I saw that he meant business, and that I wasnít leaving the house alone (not even to take a walk) until I Ďsettled in,í I got really mad. How long this went on I canít remember. I was in a fog when I got here and it took a long time to lift. But I do remember Mary sitting down on the edge of my bed very sweetly and asking me what I would like for lunch, and telling me that sheíd make it if only Iíd agree to get dressed and come downstairs. I told her that I was crazy about peanut-butter and bacon sandwiches with potato chips and pickles, just to get a rise out of her - because all they eat here is haute cuisine - but without batting an eyelash she smiled and left. Now that Iíd mentioned it, I was hungry for a peanut-butter and bacon sandwich, so I had no choice but to get up and try to make myself presentable. Donít ask me how well I succeeded; suffice it to say that Rome wasnít built in a day. It took a lot of peanut-butter and bacon. I never had the nerve, though, to ask for that at dinner as well, when I finally got around to showing up for that meal.

Sometimes the routine reminds me of Argentina - of my trip in 1940, the one I almost didnít come back from. I know you never liked Mariana OíDonnell, and I suppose I didnít, either, but she was so smart and so glamorous that Iím afraid I just fell in with her. She wasnít as smart as you or I, surely, but I at least was hardly glamorous at all, much less as glamorous as she was, with her couture clothes and her obedient hair. I thought she was the most self-sufficient person Iíd ever met until she broke down one afternoon and cried about having to go down to Argentina to see her father. He was some bigwig down there; he owned a refinery or something. He was also a playboy - thatís why Marianaís mother had left him and brought her children to New York - and he had a girlfriend who was younger than Mariana herself. Having grown up in New York, Mariana had no friends in Buenos Aires, and the next thing I knew Iíd agreed to go.

I thought I was safe, but then Mother and Dad yanked the ground out from under me by giving me permission. They thought it was a great idea! Dad was busy with the Willkie campaign, and it certainly looked as though war would be breaking out somewhere very soon, but in spite of all this they had no trouble letting me travel to the other side of the earth to keep a classmate company. They didnít say a word about the twinsí coming out party, and how my departure would improve that blessed event, but I could guess, and Iím sure I must have cried on your shoulder at least once about how I had nowhere to go but Argentina.

My first impression of life in Buenos Aires last the entire trip almost without alteration. It was a kind of country club with a Spanish accent - Spanish, that is, as in ďSpainĒ and ďgrandeeĒ and ďhacienda.Ē Everyday life was strikingly luxurious. No Puritan work ethic had ever dented these peopleís pleasure! But the curious thing I found was that when life is very, very luxurious, it is also very, very repetitive. Necessarily. How many luxuries are there? How many that you can talk about in polite society, I mean. The society that I traveled in was extremely polite.

The first event of the day was lunch. Of course I got up before that, but it didnít matter, it didnít really happen, because nobody paid attention to what happened before lunch. It was your own time. This idea took a long time to penetrate my brain. I kept asking Mariana at lunch what sheíd done so far that day, and kept getting blank stares. I couldnít tell whether I was treating her like a two year-old or invading her privacy, so I stopped. Then I figured out that she couldnít answer me because she never paid attention to what she did in the mornings. I know - because I saw her - that she sometimes went riding. She never asked me to go with her, not in the morning. I was invited to join her in the afternoons, after the siesta, an odd time I thought although I did go along a few times.

After lunch there was dancing, and after siesta there was a little more dancing - tea dancing - and then later dinner, with still more dancing, sometimes until quite late. I might point out that there were always plenty of handsome, intelligent men on hand for dancing. Some of them showed up every day. In all my time in Argentina I never saw a stick of work done - except of course by servants. It was all dining and dancing. Every once in a while, we went outside and did something, but I remember mostly the lunches and dinners at big hotels, and occasionally at SeŮor OíDonnellís various houses. Lucky for me that clothes were so inexpensive, and lucky for me that Dad gave me a generous allowance for once. Cost aside, I bought more yards of fabric in finished dresses during those two years than I have in the past thirty years.

After the dancing, there would always be a little dessert. The maÓtre dí would roll an elaborate trolley around, with every kind of confection. Napoleons, eclairs, gateaux, tarts, trifles, profiteroles, custards, mousses - everything. Over time, I grew more and more anxious about the approach of this trolley - it was the weightiest decision that I had to make all day! Should I have an old favorite, or should I try something new? I was always the last person to order, and usually everyone was laughing at me for my indecision.

I went down to Argentina with the idea that Iíd come back with Mariana when she came back. No date was set, but that didnít bother anyone; I wasnít needed anywhere. One month rolled into two, into three, with day after day of lunch and dinner, siesta and dancing. I was never really drunk - never obviously so. Mariana made a joke once about how I could hold my liquor, but the old ladies at the table gave her such awful looks - why they didnít give meawful looks I couldnít figure out - that she never brought it up again. I should mention that we were never without a contingent of old ladies, all of whom were eager to serve as duennas or chaperones. That we had been graduated from Wellesley college meant less than nothing; we were still, in their eyes, unmarried marriageable girls, and couldnít be let out of sight for an instant (in Rio I would find out why). I rather liked the old ladies. The one whose English was a lot better than my Spanish was the one who eventually came to my rescue.

It was no secret that Mariana was being courted. The man had been there at the pier to greet us when we arrived. The surprise was that Mariana began to like him. He was nearly twice her age, we thought (he was only thirty-three), and very proper, very well set-up, everything comme il faut. His name was Francisco Ortega, I believe, and Mariana hated him at first. He didnít seem to notice, and he never went away. He was always there at dinner, and sometimes at lunch, too, although he was one of the few men said to work at an office. I forget at what - something to do with cattle. Something very remotely connected with cattle, because there was never a man with less of the gaucho in him than SeŮor Ortega.

Anyway, he bided his time, and proposed, and Mariana accepted him. Only now did I realize what everybody else must have noticed long ago - even Marianaís mother, in her letters, complained about it. Mariana wasnít going back to New York. She would marry SeŮor Ortega and settle down in Buenos Aires and - eventually, I supposed, her children would give her something to do besides dining and dancing. Mariana asked me to be in the wedding. I was a bit piqued that she didnít ask me to be her maid of honor, seeing that I was her big American friend (with a big American father whom most of the men claimed to have met at one time or another on their trips to New York - Dad hadnít been to Buenos Aires yet) whoíd come all this way and so on. But she had a cousin, a childhood playmate, to whom the honor had been promised practically in the cradle. Of course I said Iíd love to be a bridesmaid and tried not to sulk.

Now all we needed was the wedding. There should have been no problem, but something came up in SeŮor Ortegaís business. Nobody thought he was trying to put the wedding off at all - but it had to be put off for a year. Now I had a problem. Was I going to stay with in the OíDonnell household all that time? It didnít sound like a very good idea. But if I returned to New York, I knew Iíd never get back to Buenos Aires. It was at this point that one of the old ladies spoke up and asked me to be her companion for the interval. She was going on an extended trip to see distant family, and we would even be going to Rio. I wouldnít have to do anything except tag along and smile, and as I thought I could do that, and as it would all be free, I accepted.

The day before we were to leave, first for an estate some hundreds of miles from the capital, I was sitting next to Mariana when I heard the dessert trolley approaching. Mariana and I had become practically best friends since my trip had been arranged, and she told me that I must take my time choosing the right, the final dessert.

ďIím not choosing,Ē I said. ďIím having one of each.Ē It just came to me like that.

I seem to have such moments from time to time. Something of the kind seems to have happened here not long after my arrival. All I remember is being fished out of the pool by Joe and Douglas, and crying for a whole day afterwards. What I was thinking when I jumped into the water is a mystery. I suppose I was mad at Douglas about the routine. I know I was mad at him about my bourbon rations. I was allowed three highballs a day, no more. There was a spell when instead of talking to him I shouted and screamed, and I think that once I said that what he was doing was illegal, that he should send me to AA for proper treatment. He laughed, and I laughed. I think we both knew that his treatment would work better for me. I was never really a drunk - I was just a little lost. I remember you said when Mother died that since Iíd always lived with my parents Iíd never had to grow up. Well, you didnít say it like that, or I would have been mad as hell, but I got the point. The problem was, I didnít know what it took to grow up. I still donít. I know that this routine thatís so important to Douglas has something to do with it, but that canít be the whole story.

When we got back from visiting you, I screwed up my courage and asked Douglas how long I had been here. I was afraid that heíd look scared, as if I was worse off than he thought, but he very calmly answered, Ďten weeks.í That would mean that I arrived in February. Well, that makes sense, because it was very cold when he rescued me. I was outside in my nightgown and slippers and Motherís fur and a scarf. I remember that. I was sitting on a hydrant - donít ask how. There was a police car. I remember wishing Iíd been able to find warmer clothes before Iíd been thrown out of my apartment.

Now, I know I told you all about this so I donít have to go into it all over again. I was such a mess that I really thought Iíd been evicted. I thought the super had told me I had to leave the building. I think - Iím afraid to ask, really - that what he really told me was that he had to fix the radiators. But he must have said something about the maintenance because thatís the only thing that could have sent me off. I hadnít paid the maintenance, or anything else, in a few months. I couldnít find my checkbook. Everything was heaped on the dining room table - I couldnít find anything. Maybe thatís why I left the apartment. You can imagine their dismay as I stood outside the building the snow in my nightgown looking hopeless.

My new bathroom should be finished by the end of next week (this according to Mr. Marshall, who brought it up, inappropriately, I thought, at lunch). There was no old bathroom; I had to walk up a short flight of stairs and halfway down a long hall in what Douglas calls the childrenís wing. Those rooms are all empty, so I had plenty of privacy, although not the real thing, which I will have now. Douglas took a corner out of this huge old playroom and got the contractors in. All the fixtures are in - a bath and a shower - and the tiles as well. The contractors work in the afternoons while Iím downstairs. If I have to be alone during that time, I just hide out in one of the rooms in the childrenís wing. Thereís a bed in one of them and an upholstered armchair in another. But if I stay up there too long, Douglas or Mr. Marshall is sure to come looking for me, just to check up. I suppose I can hardly blame them.

This letter is already so thick that it probably wonít fit in a single envelope, so Iíll stop now. I think this is the very first letter that Iíve ever written to you - in spite of knowing you for nearly fifty years! I must try better next time to tell a story from that past that you have a part in! Thatís what they asked for. But I hope this has been entertaining. I almost forgot to say that the desserts made me so sick I had to be carried to bed - really! - and a doctor summoned. But from the moment the waiters began having trouble finding room for all those plates on the table, I enjoyed being the center of attention as I have never enjoyed it since.

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