R. J. Keefe

The Alicia Letters


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Dear Muggsy,

Here I am - I hope you haven’t given up on me. I received the card from Janysse last week sometime. How nice that you smiled the whole time she read you my letter, and even laughed twice. I don’t remember saying anything funny, but I’ve gotten used to your laughing at me over the past fifty years. If I can do anything to bring some sunshine into your life, that’s great. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if you could bring some into mine.

I’m afraid that this whole time that I should have spent writing to you, I’ve been in an terrible mood, and what’s the point of writing to you if all I have to say is how awful I feel? Today I’m feeling a little better - or at least stronger. I took a long bath this morning, in my new bathtub. It was a long bath because I was afraid of getting out of the tub, it had been so long since I’d been in one. I thought I’d slip. So I just sat there in the bath worrying. Then I realized that it would be better to slip and break my neck trying to get out than to stay there helplessly until Douglas or Mr. Marshall discovered me (or worse). I don’t need any more demerits on my record!

Douglas says I’m doing fine but I know he’s just whistling a happy tune. Mr. Marshall doesn’t say anything - he never says anything even when he’s talking, because he only speaks when he can say something pleasant. He looks worried whenever he sees me; he must think me capable of anything. When I got here, I suppose I was, but I think I can say that I’ve been a real lady for a couple of months now, well, six weeks at least.

Speaking of real ladies - Did I tell you her name is Amanda? The adventuress. She says it’s Amanda, anyway. She probably invented the name as a kind of subliminal marketing - if you remember your Latin. I wish I could prove she was an illegal alien - I used to do a little INS work. Of course they’ve changed everything since then. But I want to tell you why I’ve been in such a funk.

It happened the day I got the card from Janysse. If the card had come one day earlier (and I’m not saying that it could have), I’m sure I’d have written right away, before what happened at lunch.

It was a gorgeous sunny day, almost hot, the first really warm day of the year. We opened all the windows and everyone but Mary and Mr. Marshall was wearing shorts. The trees were in bud, so there wasn’t much shade. Birds were singing up a racket. Douglas thought we’d have lunch on the terrace by the pool. We were just about to sit down when Mary came out, followed by two people I’d never seen before. It turned out that they were friends of Amanda’s, and if you can believe this they said they were taking up her invitation to stop by anytime. Her invitation! Douglas didn’t seem to mind at all. I figured that if he’d given Amanda permission, then the visit must have something to do with ‘appointments’ and ‘deliveries.’ I was right about that. But can you imagine taking someone up on such an offer? And to drop in at lunchtime, too!

The man was a pansy, I could tell right off. I know you’re supposed to call them ‘gay’ now but nothing could be farther from the truth in most cases and certainly in this one. He looked very sad and poetic - the sort who’re so tired of life that you wonder how they manage to breathe. The woman was just like Amanda, only not pretty. And not at all English; more like Nassau County, if you get my drift. She was just the sort of woman I’d have expected Amanda to dislike the most, but they chattered away like birds, leaving me free to eat my lunch in peace. Or most of it.

The pansy, meanwhile - his name was Jules, I think - was trying to sell Douglas something. This was very shocking of course - talking business in front of a stranger - and as the stranger in question I should have done my best to divert my attention. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to pick up a scrap or two of information about what it is that Douglas does, so I pricked up my ears. Douglas kept saying, “I wish that were in my line, but it’s not.” He was polite but firm and once should have been enough. But he had to say it four or five times. Jules kept thinking up new angles - but none of them changed the fact that whatever it was he was trying to sell, it wasn’t in Douglas’ line. Which line, I was dying to know. I almost asked Mr. Marshall what they were talking about, but he was going after his teeth with a toothpick (one hand covering the other - so genteel, my deah!) and I suspected that he’d be annoyed if I interrupted him. Also he’s very confidential, and never tells me anything about Douglas anyway. The fact that I’m interested is reason enough not to answer my questions.

It turned out that Jules was peddling some sculpture, a massive Italian marble bust from the Renaissance, a very fine piece, he said. Douglas politely but firmly said that he didn’t deal in Renaissance work, only classical antiquities. Jules asked him how often he ever got to see Roman or Greek busts that were four or five feet tall thatway. Douglas answered quickly that he’d just sold one a month or so ago, and I thought my stomach was going to eat its way out of me. Something about a great big bust started an earthquake in the back of my mind, and I had half a mind to excuse myself before it was too late and I found out why. Sheer mortification kept me glued to my seat. Even when Amanda looked at me with a light smile and an arched eyebrow, I sat where I was and tried to fiddle with dessert. I could barely look at my food. I was sure that any minute now I would make the connection, see the big picture, and pass out from shame. Something to do with a bust, and something to do with the pool. The bottom of the pool. I wanted not to remember but I couldn’t help trying.

Presently we were through, and Douglas invited his guests to take a swim if they liked. Jules stood up and said a little huffily that he was sorry but he didn’t know how to swim. Renee chuckled and said, “Watch out for Alicia, then. She may just push you in!” Amanda screamed with a giggle. Renee looked at me, pleading but hilarious. “Sorry! Sorry! I know I shouldn’t have said that. I just couldn’t help it. Forgive me.”

“I have never pushed a living being into a swimming pool,” I snapped.

“Of course not,” said Douglas - but he was smiling, the traitor.

Jules looked politely confused, and it seemed that the whole story would have to be explained to him. Again, my first impulse was to leave. My second was to stick around and find out what happened. All I remembered was seeing the big box in the moonlight, and wondering if it would float. The next morning, there was the bust at the bottom of the pool, a really big head of Neptune or somebody, with the bits of packing crate lying on the bottom where they’d fallen in the crash. I watched as the car mechanics and a scuba diver hooked the bust up to a tow-truck and lifted it out of the water. From the way they looked at me I could tell that I was the party responsible, but all I could remember was shivering and being dripping wet. Mr. Marshall frantically explored each and every wrinkle and curl for chips and cracks, but he didn’t find any. 

“Don’t look at me,” I said to them, when I realized they were all staring at me. “All I remember is that it was my last party.”

“That’s right,” said Douglas nicely. “Alicia was having a bit of fun.”

“If you call tying yourself to a three-ton rock and pushing it into the water fun,” said Renee brightly.

“Really, Renee,” Amanda admonished, not very seriously.

“What tying?” I asked.

“That’s what you told me, isn’t it, Amanda?”

“The rope was forty feet long, Renee,” said Douglas. “The pool’s not even ten feet deep.”

“That’s the last time I’ll ever tell you a good story,” said Amanda to Renee. But she was smiling a little - smirking - and this time I had to go. I went to my room and stretched out on my bed and felt miserable. Why hadn’t Douglas told me? That’s what rankled. Well, he hadn’t told me because I hadn’t asked. I had made it pretty clear, no doubt, that I didn’t want to find out what I’d been doing with the rope and the bust. So he hadn’t told me, and now I got to hear about it instead from this awful stranger. The wonderful thing about Douglas was that he’d leave me alone if I wanted to be left alone. The bad thing about Douglas was that he’d leave me alone until I was at death’s door, which is where I was when he rescued me. He looked at those piles of bills, that water-damaged wall-paper, and the boxes of personal property that the firm had dumped in my foyer and which I’d never been able to unpack. He saw all of it and knew that something was wrong. But he would not intrude. He would not say, “Alicia, now get a grip on yourself!” He still hasn’t. He’s only said, “I think two bourbons a day is a good number.” That’s it. That’s as close as we’ve ever gotten to a heart to heart talk. Which is usually just fine with me but today isn’t.

Then I fell asleep and dreamed of Mrs. Beagle. I can’t have thought about Mrs. Beagle or the uproar she caused in fifty years!

It happened just before my trip to Argentina in 1940. Mother had been doing more and more committee work, and I’d been helping her with her papers in the evenings (not that it was the greatest fun in the world). When my trip began to be close Dad decided, out of the blue, that Mother needed a secretary. At first Mother wouldn’t hear of it. She claimed that it was an unnecessary extravagance, but in point of fact she didn’t want anybody poking around her business. Dad finally prevailed, though. He positively insisted that she give it a try for a few weeks. He got Mr. Bertram, who ran things at the office, to engage a suitable applicant. That was a mistake. At the time, the firm had no female employees at all - the secretaries were all men. So Mr. Bertram was no expert in the right kind of lady to be working with my mother. It turned out that Mrs. Beagle was the wrong kind of paragon.

She was shortish and stoutish, built like a boxer, Dad said, and about as pretty, Catherine added. She was very grave. She looked us over as if she weren’t quite certain that we’d do. Mother stepped forward and graciously took her hand. The woman smiled right back and said, “Mrs. Schnoebling, I just know we’re going to enjoy working together.” I saw Mother jump back a hair.

For the first few days, Mrs. Beagle was very quiet, following Mother and round and familiarizing herself with the routine. A few letters got mailed, but Mother felt sure that she didn’t have enough work to keep Mrs. Beagle busy. Then one day Mrs. Beagle announced that she would staying late that evening, “to catch up with some work.” Mother could imagine what the backlog there could be. She and Dad were going out somewhere that night, she almost asked Mrs. Beagle to stay some other night when she would be at home “to help,” but she decided against this, because she had discerned a touch of madness in Mrs. Beagle and was afraid that she might go off like a rocket if provoked. So she and Dad went out to wherever it was and when they came home and Mother went to undress, she was alarmed to find that her clothes closets were half empty. “That woman’s a thief,” she said to Dad, and they were about to call the police when Mrs. Beagle knocked and entered. While they stood there fascinated Mrs. Beagle explained that she had thought it would be easier if she winnowed some of Mother’s ‘less appropriate garments’ while Mother was elsewhere. By now I’d crept down from my tower bedroom and was eavesdropping. Mother asked simply where the clothes were, and Mrs. Beagle explained that they were laid out in the dining room. “Call Andrei now and have him bring them back up,” Mother said crisply. “Mrs. Beagle and I will discuss the matter further in the morning.”

To my great chagrin, Mrs. Beagle took a deep breath and with a nod of her head turned and left. Whatever was going to happen next was going to happen behind closed doors. In the morning, Mother handed me a basket of fruit and flowers and sent me off to the hospital to visit her friend Mrs. Culpepper. There was no point in arguing with this obvious maneuver because Mother was going to get rid of me out of the house one way or another, and I didn’t mind Mrs. Culpepper too much. When I got back, neither Mother nor Mrs. Culpepper was in. In fact, Mother stayed away all afternoon. She was still out when Dad came home from the office.

“Well?” I cried, the minute she walked in.

Mother went over to where Dad was sitting and gave him a kiss.  Then she turned to me. “Alicia, dear, please do not shout. People will think we’re from Iowa.”

Dad shot Mother a look, and so did I: she was smiling one of her little catlike smiles, as if she knew more than everybody else on earth (an act she had down flat). She was not speaking in her natural voice. It was as though she has assumed a silly accent - though she hadn’t. She was dressed up somehow.

“Will we be dining in the dining room?” I asked, cutting up.

“Alicia, stop it,” Dad snapped. Mother was unperturbed. “Alicia, my dear, I am so relieved that you did not call it the dining parlor. That would have vexed me considerable. Everyone would know we’re from Iowa for sure.”

“What’s all this about Iowa,” Dad put in, sounding irritated. He knew Mother was joking somehow and wanted her to let him in on it.

“We are, after all, from Iowa, I believe?” Mother said, with wide-open eyes. “Davenport, Iowa?”

“I was born here,” I said.

Mother ignored me. “You may not be aware, Harold - I myself was unaware until this morning - of the number of people from Davenport, Iowa, and other cities and towns in the Midwest, who have moved to the New York Metropolitan Area only to find themselves completely deficient in manners and - what was it? - savoir faire. Mrs. Beagle administers to this woeful lack. Indeed, after three days with me in this house, she concluded that even though I had not requested any such service from, that I too wished to guided into the ways of the true elect.”

“What was wrong with all those dresses, Mother?”

“Color,” she said, twinkling. “Too much vividness.” She moved off toward the pantry door to order dinner served. “Apparently,” she called over her shoulder, “it’s among the most common failure of midwestern transplants. They overdo.”

I looked at Dad and realized I shouldn’t be laughing. But it was no use. “Guess you’ll have to have a little chat with Bertram,” I said. He was sore at me for days after that. But he was sorer with Bertram, at least until he wangled what had happened. It seems that in his ignorance of feminine employment Mr. Bertram had turned to the wife of one of the other big partners, a lady with Mayflower in her background and uninterrupted tenancy in the East ever since. She had a thing about Iowans.

Mother had her revenge during the Willkie campaign. She kept the old pouterpigeon off every really good committee.

I awoke to a knock at the door, and I said to come in. It was Amanda of all people. She came in quietly, looking very concerned, and sat on the edge of my bed. She apologized for her friend’s ‘remarks.’ I smiled and said they were already forgotten. She squeezed my hand and thanked me. Then she stood up and left. I wonder why I didn’t feel grateful for her sweet concern. I don’t think I believed in it. What I believed was that Amanda thought I should be put in a home.

I put on a little makeup, to hide the redness around my eyes, and I prayed there were no dinner guests. My prayers were heard. Amanda had apparently gone off with her friend Renee and Mr. Marshall had something to do. No one else was expected. So it was just Douglas and me. We hardly spoke, and yet it was very pleasant.

But perhaps it would be better if I could talk to Douglas about things a little more directly. I could tell that the heap of bills on my dining room table at the apartment bothered him, but only because of the little jokes that he made about it. “There’s a Guinness World Record here,” I remember him saying, once. Very indirect. He has never pried into my life and I have never pried into his. I’ve never asked him why he’s never married any more than he’s asked the same question of me. For that matter, we’ve never talked about Jack Harrell, not once, although I’d be very surprised if he hadn’t heard the story from his parents. He came and rescued me from my perch in the snow and brought me here and told me that I could stay as long as I liked - forever, if I liked. Then he laid out the terms: a routine of two bourbons a day. That was that.

Of course if we were in the way of talking thing over, then sooner or later I’d have to ask him what he does for a living.

Thank Janysse for sending the postcard.


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