A STORY BY PHYLLIS KALB
Sandra knew the game was up when she lost the list. Where could it have disappeared to? In what mad realm was her consciousness when she laid the list down? Was it inside the oven? Under the car seat? On top of the refrigerator?
“Anywhere a mouse can go.” One of her children, beset by junior high school grammar, had given her this easy way to identify a preposition. Was the list perhaps beside the telephone? Across the piano bench? Behind the toilet? Over the birdcage? Between the books? Down the laundry chute? Up the chimney? Frantically, she used up all the prepositions. Still, no list.
The water on the stove had come to a boil. She poured herself a cup of cocoa, sat down at the round, white, glass table in the kitchen, and tried to catch at bits of drifting memory. What had she been doing? Had a child come to the door seeking payment for delivering the paper? Had her husband returned before seven, been unjustifiably grumpy to find his potato half baked? Had she been sneaking midday glances at As the World Turns and been so guiltily absorbed in the televised rituals of Patient Kim and Cuckolded Don that she had sealed the list into a package of chicken parts and stored it in the freezer?
“I am not to be trusted,” she thought.
The matter of the list had surfaced some ten days earlier, on a Monday morning. Husband and children had long since left the house for their other lives. She had been up early enough to put together tuna sandwiches in plastic bags. The beginning of the week, the beginning of the school year—for it was early October—both gave her plenty of time. Any number of captivating possibilities might turn up to vault her into the “real world.”
When the phone rang, finally, it could have been anyone. Bruce, a college sweetheart? Perhaps he had glimpsed her Wednesday evening in her subscription seat at Arena Stage and turned pink with desire. Or a certain Dr. Praskin, chief of research at the National Academy of Standards; roused by her incisive comments on bridge-building at a cocktail party, he was calling to suggest a suitable course of engineering study. Or it could be the Begum Alisastro, inviting her to curry tiffin, or Nancy Albright, encouraging her to join a Sensitive Persons’ Tour of China. The Maryland Lottery, advising her of a $500,000 win?
Sandra allowed the phone to ring five times, prolonging the possibilities. The voice, when she heard it, belonged to none of the above.
“Sandra!” it pounced.
She felt a thump in her chest. Got you! she found herself imagining in that swift salutation. You’re home at ten o’clock in the morning, when everybody else is decently out earning, or studying, or at least having teeth filled—so I’ve got you!
“Sandra!” came the voice again. “Are you there?”
“Yes,” she answered weakly.
“Good! This is Ethel Summers.”
Sandra wondered for a moment why Ethel Summers, whose face she could not recall, should be addressing her by first name. Ms. Summers was not, presumably, a gynecologist, assuming this intimacy as a professional privilege.
“You remember, Sandra—we met at the concertlast May . . .”
Sandra’s thoughts ricocheted—pinballs bouncing off the wickets of her memory. Which concert? The NIH Sunday Chamber Music series? The annual Messiah sing-in at the Kennedy Center? She wished she could answer boldly: “Of course—Ethel! How nice to hear from you!” Or, taking a long chance, “How are the children?”
Instead, she fumbled. “Ethel? Ethel Summers?”
“Yes” (a hint of impatience), “the Brundage Musicale . . .”
She had, at least, a toehold. Ethel Summers was a mother. Sandra dimly recalled her daughter Lisa’s mention of Ernestine Summers, with whom she shared a stand toward the rear of the flute section. As parents, Sandra and Ethel had experienced together the fourhour-long Brundage Junior High Musicale. Lawrence, Sandra’s husband, had been unable to attend, owing to a previous commitment.
“How are you?” Sandra asked.
“Fine. Well—not so fine—but I won’t bore you with that.”
Ethel Summers paused. Sandra, silent, left the pause where it lay.
“Whiplash.” Ethel continued. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. Coming off the Beltway. Broad daylight, mind you.”
Sandra heard the voice crest and recede, thinking all the while of broad beaches, the far-off hooting of cranes.
“Are you there?” asked Ethel. “Can you hear me?”
“I’ve got you at a bad time?”
“Not exactly. It’s only that I have ... an appointment. With the dentist.”She crossed her fingers, raised her eyes heavenward.
“Well, I won’t keep you then. It’s about the annual fund-raiser—for BOOM.”
Sandra remained silent. In the silence, she listened to Pepper, the parakeet, nibble his seed. She stroked the flank of Gypsy, the aging, middle-sized, caramelcolored mutt, of whom one of the children had said that morning: “She must be getting old. She doesn’t even move when you kick her.”
Ethel went on. “You do have a daughter, don’t you? Lisa? She plays the flute? Surely you know about BOOM.”
Sandra struggled. It had to be an acronym, involving Brundage and Orchestra.
“I’m sure you noticed,” Ethel continued, “in the last PTA newsletter. The fund-raiser is coming up. November 3. You will bake something for us, won’t you?”
November 3. That was easy. So much could happen before November 3. She could break her arm, have a hysterectomy, fall down a sewer.
“Of course,” she answered, relieved. “Of course I will. I’ll be glad to. How many do you want? Cookies, cakes—three, four?”
“Good!” said Ethel, back on solid ground. “And you won’t mind, will you—I assume since you’re home at this hour you don’t go to business—you won’t mind calling a few others to get their commitment . . .”
There it was. The important moment. An innocent October morning, and she was called upon to decide whether or not she would announce her liberation. The way to liberation was simple: “I do not make telephone calls.” All right, she could have said: “I do not bake cakes.” But somehow, baking was not so terrible. Baking she could do late at night, accompanied by The Odd Couple and Perry Mason. Telephoning had to be done consciously, during waking hours. It required her participation.
“We need your help . . .” Ethel’s voice had softened, as if in answer to the vibrations of resistance she sensed. “You know very well how the school board feels about these instrumental music programs—not a penny extra for them! They’d do away with all the extras if they could. Not basic enough. It’s up to us— the parents. If we don’t support BOOM, who will?”
Ethel, with a natural salesman’s instinct, had reached her.
“Tell you what,” Ethel moved on. “I’ll drop the list in your mailbox this afternoon. Only twenty-five names. Simple as that. I don’t know what you do all day . . . but I’m sure you must be very busy. It won’t take much of your time.”
“Well . . .” Sandra began.
“Great!” Ethel concluded. “You’re a darling. So nice to talk to you. Get back to me as soon as you can—by next week. Oh —and by the way—be sure to call at dinner time if you want to find people in. Most women, these days, go to business.”
Click. Ethel was gone. Sandra sat with the receiver in her hand. The ripening October morning had lost its promise. Pepper puffed out his green feathers and began to grumble and squawk. Gypsy’s growl swelled to a brain-joggling bark as the garbage truck approached.
Quite clearly, there was no place to hide. She felt like a dumb animal, cornered in its lair. Who was she harming, staying at home, sitting in the quiet and the sunshine, providing whole-meal pancakes for breakfast, writing excuse notes for school, decorating birthday cakes, tying ice skates, feeling all the while as though she had left something out? Had she not paid her dues?
The list arrived that very afternoon. Sandra found it in the mailbox, along with a flyer reminding her that she had not yet joined the Citizens’ Association for this year. She carried both of these up the hill, holding them far from her body. The house she lived in looked alien, distorted, as though it could not survive. Some houses were rooted in their surroundings. Hers was not. It had been carelessly and quickly stuck into the ground. When she and Larry had bought it eight years before, its newness had captivated them. It looked solid, but soon the floors under the front hallway tile buckled, handles fell off the screw-out windows, nails popped from unseasoned beams through the drywall, water from the master bathroom leaked through the middle of the dining room ceiling, leaving a brown blotch. Their house was one to be used and sold, not handed down to the next generation.
Sandra stared a while at the house, pitying it, then crossed the threshhold. She put the list down. There was no need to hurry. She could let it rest a while, let it grow accustomed to the atmosphere. She often did that with new clothes, especially if she had been uncharacteristically extravagant. Once she had hidden a pale pink cashmere sweater under a pile of stockings, hoping to become gradually worthy of it. She had found it again the following spring.
What tricks! What silly tricks! There were, she knew, straightforward women who never tricked themselves.
But she put the list away. Today was Monday. Certainly she had until Friday to begin making the calls.
On Friday, it was nine o’clock in the evening by the time the list swam into consciousness. Too late to catch people at dinner. And who would want to be called on Friday night—the school week over—with a request to bake cookies?
Monday—a good day to start. But on Monday her mother telephoned just at dinner time, upsetting her with a tale of having fallen in the street, bloodied her knee, and torn her new six-dollar Supp-hose.
On Tuesday, she and Lawrence were invited to cocktails in Georgetown—to a house that was narrow, solid, elegant, and had quadrupled in value in the eight years since they had bought theirs. Two girls, daughters of their hosts, greeted them as they entered, bobbing in abbreviated, charming curtsies. Sandra watched as they climbed the red-carpeted stairs, their silky hair caught in ribbons, their hands sliding confidently along the mellow old oak banister. Larry loved parties, and so did she-except that the pure cream of her enjoyment was nearly always tinged with acid envy. In any case, telephoning this evening was out.
On Wednesday, she had a splitting headache and a minor trauma. She returned from the supermarket at four in the afternoon with a parcel of filleted bounder. Fish was not a favorite in her house and produced, weekly, variations on a predictable scenario. “What’s for dinner?” one or another of her children would ask. Her back to the questioner, she would answer: “Something special.” Or, “Don’t you want to be surprised?” Or, “Why do you ask?” The reaction was always a protracted, punishing groan, an expletive, and a variation on “Fish! I knew it! Why do we have to have fish?” The truth was, she didn’t know. Fish was nourishing, but they could be nourished in other ways. Why did she insist? Was she a provocateur? Were they, her children, playing out a weekly drama of resistance and capitulation until the day, finally, when they could emerge into their independent worlds, free and fishless?
That afternoon, she pulled the station wagon into the driveway and pressed the magic opener. The garage door remained fixed in place. She pressed again. Nothing. The door stared back, stubborn, unyielding. She jiggled the contraption, pressed again. No response. She lowered the car’s window, held the gadget high in the air, muttering idiotically, “Open, sesame!” No reaction. She left the car, stood before the stolid door, pressing, jiggling, shouting: “Open! Open, damn you, sesame!”
Accustomed to entering the house through the garage, she had not taken a key to the double-locked front door. No one was home. The children, she knew, were at their various after-school activities. She was locked out. Briefly she considered breaking a window and entering, but she had an instant vision of Gypsy leaping through the shattered glass and bloodying herself, of subsequent dealings with the veterinarian (who blamed her in any case for the dog’s unhealthy fatness), of waiting for the window repairman, who would not be able to approximate the day or hour of his arrival.
Sandra climbed into her car, left the scene, and drove, aimlessly weeping, the bounder by her side. In the dimming twilight, she could make out the Pomeroys’ mailbox, a perfect miniature replica, even to the cedar-shake roof, of their dwelling. This mailbox marked the end of her subdivision. She drove on, past Willowwoods and Fox Hunt, through Old Pasture and Winding Way, until she came, finally, to streets beyond her recognition. Slowing the station wagon, almost blinded by inexplicable tears, she lifted the flounder parcel and hurled it, newsboy fashion, onto the straw-dry zoysia lawn of a stranger.
When she returned, Lawrence had arrived from the office and let the children in. They patted her shoulder, murmuring, “Oh, Mother . . . ” She did not mention the fish, and they all ate frozen pizza for dinner. Needless to say, telephone calls that evening were out of the question.
Thursday—by now the list had grown vulture’s wings. It hovered over her, skulked in the corners of her consciousness, left her no peace. She recognized its triviality, knew that if she never made the calls, no child would starve, no nation slip into nuclear confrontation. Still, she suffered.
On Friday Sandra knew the moment had come. She would have to begin. But not until dinner time. As Ethel had said, she was unlikely to catch any of her peers at home until dinner time.
So she went for her usual Friday swim at the Community Center. In past years, she had sometimes been joined by a neighbor, but no longer. One of her neighbors was in law school, another in handbags at Lord & Taylor, another at the Smithsonian, guiding students.
She drove to the Community Center behind a car whose license plate read EYE CU. At first puzzled, she reflected that the driver might possibly be connected to an optometrist; another, who displayed I FLOSS, she knew to be the wife of a periodontist. From the parking lot, she walked with her straw basket containing towel and swimsuit past a parked minibus—identical in size and shape to the brilliant yellow kindergarten bus but distinguished by its pale blue color. The bus, whose legend read COUNCIL FOR THE AGING, was letting off a score of passengers; the aging descended its steps carefully, in crepe-soled shoes. Pastel were the passengers—very like the color of the bus—and soft, obedient.
Slipping into the warm water of the pool was soothing, as always. She took a breath after each four strokes, turning her head to the left. On the twelfth lap of her usual eighteen, she tried, for the first time, turning her head to the right to breathe. It was unfamiliar, awkward, difficult, but exciting—as though she were learning a foreign language. Exhilarated by her new perspective, she finished the laps effortlessly.
When she emerged, dripping, she noticed that a man, standing by the edge of the pool in his bathing trunks, was staring flagrantly at her bosom. She could not tell his age. Was he in his middle years? A senior citizen? Was he sizing her up as a real possibility? Had he descended from the pale blue bus? She showered, dried quickly, and went home.
At four, she forced herself to focus on the list. “Find it,” she told herself. “Take it out. Place it next to the telephone. Pour yourself a cup of warm cocoa. And begin.”
The list, however, was not in the middle drawer of the kitchen desk. Nor was it in any of the three side drawers. Nor between the crumpled maps, nor under last year’s medical bills. The list was not over or under or beyond, not inside or outside, not betwixt or between.
She had lost the list.
“If absolutely necessary. Pepper,” she told the parakeet, “I need never hear the clatter of Ethel’s voice again.”
She envisioned herself climbing the stairs to her bedroom. From the jewel box on her dresser she would remove the diamond circle pin that had once been her grandmother’s, the gold-banded wristwatch, the Phi Beta Kappa key, the deep green, heart-shaped malachite pendant Lawrence had given her, the double strand of pearls. These she would tuck into her handbag, along with $60 worth of travelers’ checks she had found while looking for the list. Slowly, deliberately, she would descend the stairs, brushing away a few cobwebs between the railings as she went. Pausing for a brief moment at the front door, she would turn; then, from the uplifted palm of her blackgloved hand, she would blow into the air a gentle farewell kiss.
Meantime, she sat at the kitchen table, warming her hands around the mug of cocoa. The light, this late October afternoon, angled low through the back-yard trees. Sandra could see, just barely, a thinning out. Some of the leaves, since she last remembered consciously observing the scene, that morning of Ethel’s call, had dropped and were beginning to gather in rakeable bunches on the ground. Gypsy was out—scratching around, poking her middle-aged nose into the autumn earth. Pepper sat silently on his perch, tailfeathers quivering.
Sandra stretched, hearing the bones in her back crackle. She rose slowly, took her cup to the sink, rinsed it, turned it upside down on the drying rack. Then she opened the cupboard, preparing to take stock of the supplies that she would need. Fifteen layer cakes, she figured, plus four dozen brownies and a hundred and eighty or so assorted sugar cookies—that should more than cover Ethel’s lost list. If Sandra got to work at once, she could deliver her offering by Wednesday. □