At 7:58 A.M. on a wet Monday morning, twenty-seven hours after giving up cigarettes and a green-eyed disc jockey, I was not in a mood to socialize. Facing myself in the bathroom mirror had exhausted my conviviality. Choosing a sweater and skirt had used up my intellectual reserve.
Nonetheless, the doorbell rang. I wasn't expecting any deliveries. The Philadelphia Inquirer had already arrived, hurled at the house with such vengeance its front page was gashed. So much for scheduled guests.
The only unexpected deliveries I receive are Nice Young Men sent C.O.D. by relatives who cannot bear the stigma of a thirty-year-old spinster schoolmarm in the family. I have tried to end their shipments by sending them clippings, statistics on delayed marriage and child-bearing. I've tried to convince them that it's un-American, not to mention unfashionable, to rush into anything except high-tech careers.
They respond by sending more Nice Young Men. But the N.Y.M. don't arrive in the mornings, anyway. I shuffled to the front door and stared through the peephole. The act was a formality. The peephole tilted upward, like a telescope. With it I could sight the Big Dipper at appropriate times of the year, but that was all.
"Mandy? Open up! Please! It's me, Liza."
Surprised and puzzled, I opened the door onto Liza and the monsoon season. I was willing to lose a little of a rushed morning to find out why a near stranger would visit at this hour. Liza bolted past me, then slowed down, dribbling a damp trail around the room that serves as my kitchen, dining and living room. She tossed her raincoat over my suede chair, shaking her black hair like a puppy. She was of the perfect-featured, small sort men treat like children or dolls, but at the moment she looked pasty instead of porcelain skinned.
"Thank God you're here!" she exclaimed. "Don't know what I'd have done otherwise."
I discreetly removed the raincoat and brushed off the chair. I am not a fanatic housekeeper, but suede is impractical at best, and sopping raincoats are definitely off-limits. And now that I'd given up the disc jockey—and maybe more important, cigarettes—the chair was my only impractical and unwise love object.
I waited for a clue as to why Liza was in my living room at this ungodly hour. She shouldn't have appeared in my life until shortly after two o'clock, and then it should have been in my classroom. Liza was a co-worker, not a friend. She was a part-time teacher of creative dramatics. She was a very good actress, onstage and off, although she was about to take early retirement from playing other people's scripts when she married in three weeks. Along with all the rest of the English faculty, I had been at her engagement party a few weeks earlier, a joyless affair that was easy to confuse with a press conference. But perhaps I am unfair. Or jealous. Liza was marrying one of the most proper and wealthy of Philadelphians, a candidate—and likely winner—for state senator, and after that, judging by his demeanor, King of America.
"I'm exhausted," she said in her stagy manner. "Got off the bus and walked for hours. I didn't know where to go. If I hadn't remembered you lived on Litton, if your house hadn't been right here..." She collapsed extravagantly onto my sofa and leaned back against the cushions.
"What bus? From where? Why?"
She waved away my logical questions in an irritating queen-bee manner.
I put her coat on the radiator, discounted most of what she'd said—she was, as I said, fond of dramatic overstatement—and dared one more inhospitable question. "Liza, what brings you here?" I picked up my coffee cup and sipped the lukewarm brew.
"I need time," she said between a sneeze and a yawn. "Have to think. Can't go home. My mother's impossible. Always was, but she's worse since the engagement. Worried that I'll blow it. Wants me to regain my virginity before the wedding. Anyway, this is a good place. I always tell her I'm here when I'm going to be out all night."
I put down my coffee cup. "You tell her what?"
"You don't mind, do you?" she asked, with no real interest in how I might feel about it. "See, my mother—"
But, as if it had heard the maternal password, the telephone rang. "Coffee, Liza?" I finally asked, because she was eyeing my cup, looking like a hungry, wet poodle. Besides, the question delayed answering the call, and I knew, in the damp center of my bones, who it had to be.
My mother always seems surprised that I answer my own phone, although I live alone. "Amanda?" she asks, terrified that a man might answer and she'd have to decide whether she was outraged or delighted. She was unsure enough to have gone through a person-to-person phase, but while that protected her innocence, it was too expensive. She switched to a discount service with horrible reception.
My mother calls because she thinks that if she pounds the word "marriage" on my head, repeats her basic message—"Get married!"—enough times, and emphasizes the time requirement—"Get Married Soon!"—I'll buckle under. And she has chosen early Monday mornings, she says, because I'm too hard to reach other times. I say it's because she figures that with my resistance low anyway at the start of another week of spoiled and dull-witted adolescents ("other people's children," as she subtly calls them), I'll be receptive to her message. And then she'll have one of her sisters ship over another Nice Young Man.
"I'd love some," Liza said, and I was hard pressed to remember what she meant until she added, "coffee."
I nodded. My mother chirruped greetings from Florida. She had been up all night with insomnia. "All I really need is to talk to somebody," Liza said from the couch. My mother had the same need, and she took precedence. She began cataloguing the condition of her various body parts. I held the phone on my shoulder, set out another coffee cup, and waited for the water to boil. Mama progressed from sciatica to hemorrhoids. I opened a can of cat food and put its contents in a bowl on the floor.
"Milk?" I whispered in Liza's direction. Unfortunately, my mother's ears are not one of her afflicted parts, and she cut short her analysis of hot flashes to question me about the milk drinker.
"A friend from school, Mother. Female." I don't know whether my answer disappointed or relieved her. "Liza," I added, "the one I told you about. Who's marrying Hayden Cole, remember?" Mother made impressed coos. I had won a few points by being in the same room with a person who believed in marriage.
"You know how sometimes you think you're so smart?" Liza said, more or less to herself. She nodded her head, then shook it. "Then you find out you're a stupid..."
Perhaps she had rushed to me after flunking an all-night IQ test. She nervously tapped her nails against her bottom teeth, fiddled with a locket at her neck, and twisted her engagement ring. "And the two of them..."
I held up a finger, trying to signal Liza to wait for true confessions until I was finished with Mama. Liza sighed and seemed to shrink. She lit a cigarette.
I tried to inhale whatever smoke drifted my way. I certainly missed cigarettes more than the disc jockey. But then, I'd quit smoking cold turkey, and quit him only after whatever we'd had was long since dead.
"Sugar?" I whispered. Liza held up two fingers. Her metabolism worked overtime. I dumped a pack of carcinogenic sweetener in my own cup.
Since my coffee partner was not a prospective husband, my mother reminded me that I wasn't getting any younger. I listened, meanwhile filling the cups with brown powder and boiling water.
My mother informed me that it was a sunny eighty-four degrees down there.
I resent my parents' metamorphosis into leathery sybarites. When they sold their house up here, they sold out, donating their boots, loyalty and Puritan ethics to Goodwill. Florida had frizzed their brains, made them forget that weather is to be endured, not enjoyed.
Too sweetly, my mother asked me for a local report. She knew about April in Philadelphia. Had anyone ever written a song about it?
A sheet of windblown rain slid down the front window, breaking into fine patterns on the many panes. "It's a little humid here, Mom," I said. "And Mom? I have to go now. Time to leave for work."
My mother remained unperturbed. She asked if I'd ever considered a dating service. She had heard about an actual matchmaker, very modernized, complete with computers. Since I seemed unable to end the conversation, I tried to be a good hostess. I "ummed" while Mama told me not to knock something before I tried it. I squeezed the receiver between my shoulder and ear and walked over to the sofa with Liza's coffee.
The coffee made it, some of it even inside the cup. But the telephone cord lassoed the milk carton, the sugar bowl, and my coffee on the kitchen counter. I heard the crash and returned to find everything in a new and dismaying pattern on the kitchen floor, slopping over the cat food.
I would like to think I'll eventually outgrow the gawky stage.
My mother let me get on with my life. After all, if I wasn't going to move South or find a husband, I'd better hang onto my job.
"Don't clean it up," Liza said as I replaced the receiver. "I'll do it."
"That's okay. No problem." I picked up the dripping milk carton.
"Please, Amanda? Please?" The urgency in her voice startled me. "Talk to me instead." She lit a second cigarette. "I'm so mixed up, and you're so together, so self-sufficient. You know what you want, what to do..."
Liza was not an ace at judging character, but I didn't contradict her. I stepped over the slop and went into the living room.
"I really look up to you," she said.
"That's because I'm taller."
"My mother's no help."
I didn't like being categorized with the previous generation. I'm older than Liza, but only chronologically. If half her anecdotes were true, she'd lived her quarter-century double-time.
I hid my annoyance by putting on lipstick, a darker shade than normal. I'm aware that I've been given a fair share by nature, and I basically like myself. I like being tall. I like my hair, although I sometimes wish it would decide whether it's red or brown. I've also got great knees, but that doesn't count for much. As for the rest of me, even on my worst days I know that I'm not likely to turn any viewers into stone.
But when I'm around Liza's miniaturized voluptuousness, her shiny black hair and smooth white skin, I feel oversized and drab. Even today, when she was at her worst.
So I boosted my color quotient with extra makeup. When I can afford analysis, I'll work out the deeper meaning of these ego problems. In the meantime, blusher is cheap.
Liza exhaled great gusts of smoke. Every time she filled the air with that comforting old stench, I had problems remembering what I was trying to prove by quitting. "I'd do what I want," she said abruptly, "if I knew what it was. If everybody would lay off, stop offering advice. Everybody has answers, but I don't know if they're my answers. How do you know?"
"Me? I don't. But I know what you mean. I just broke up with somebody who kept telling me what I wanted and who I was, and—"
"Jesus, what a number she did! What did I ever do to her? And then he—I mean what if it's a lie? How do I know if she—?"
It sounded like one of my mother's bad connections. Either I was hearing every third word or Liza was less than coherent. In any case, my nerve endings and professional pride couldn't withstand her indefinite pronouns.
"Liza, who? Who is he? And for that matter, who is she? Your mother?"
"My mother?" She looked startled and bemused. "What does my mother have to do with...? Oh, Lord, do I sound nuts? I'm just tired. More than tired, I'm..." She looked close to tears. Then she shrugged. "Tired. That's all. Forget it. You'll be late for work."
"I have a few minutes."
"Thanks, anyway." Her bright smile looked pasted on. "It isn't really anything I can discuss. I guess I got flustered in the rain and dark, but I'll handle it. If you'll let me stay, I'll nap, and my head will straighten out. That's all I need." She continued beaming beatifically, but her nervous fingers worked on her damp hair, her neck, her green T-shirt.
I did have to get to work. Still, I put on my raincoat reluctantly. It was not yet 9:00A.M., and I had already failed at something.
She pulled an afghan around her and stretched out on the sofa. "You'll be at the two o'clock class, won't you?" I asked, needing reassurance.
"Sure. I won't stand you up this time." Then she grinned. "But I'll stand up. Properly. Complete with bra."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Last time I was in, the office witch gave me a memo about undergarments. Teachers, even part-time, are not allowed to have nipples." She grinned. "Get going," she insisted. "I have to sleep. Forget my mood. I have."
I locked up with the uneasy feeling that her smile and her great drowsiness were masks she'd remove the moment I left her alone.
By one o'clock, my Monday lunch hour, my stomach walls were huddled together, praying for something to digest. I tried to bribe them with the polyethylene souffle of the day, but after a few bites, I decided to fast.
"I'm going upstairs to mark papers," I said.
"The food's not that bad," Gus Winston answered. "Kind of tickles when it bounces around inside. Anyway, keep me company."
He smiled. I love his face, a mobile, slightly eroded sand sculpture. I looked at my dog-eared stack of ungraded compositions, knowing that as soon as they were marked, double their numbers would spring up in their place. "Maybe I'll get some of it done next period while Liza teaches."
"In that case, work now. Never rely on Liza. For anything." Gus was the resident Liza expert. They worked together at a semiprofessional repertory theater. They had done other things together, very briefly, but that history had left him with more scars than Vietnam had.
"She always does, doesn't she? That's easy for her. It's harder remembering the promise a whole week later."
"But this was this morning. In my own living room."
Gus put down his fork. "I didn't think you had coffee klatches at dawn. Or was it the morning after a pajama party?"
"I don't know what it was. The rain washed her in this morning."
Gus chewed the last of his souffle meditatively. Vietnam had ruined his left leg, scarred his face, and narrowed his acting ambitions, but it obviously hadn't touched his digestive tracts. "Is she still at your house?" he asked.
"Probably. She wanted to nap. Why?"
"We—I have to talk to her. Tried to last night, after the show, but she was having one of her tantrums."
"She was odd this morning, too. What's up?"
"You tell me. I don't understand a goddamn thing about Liza Nichols. Hasn't she told you that? She's told everybody else." He stabbed his red square of Jell-O and watched it shudder before pushing it away, his fork sinking into its heart. "I hear she's being coached on how to fit into Hayden Cole's once-and-future life. How to dress, talk, change her style. Senators can be prima donnas, but their wives are supposed to serve tea and smile on the sidelines."
"Patience, Gus. She isn't a wife yet. And he isn't a senator, either."
"Details. She'll be his missus in three weeks, and he'll either win the state or buy it, just as he already bought Liza."
There was nothing for me to say. Gus hadn't gotten what he expected from life or Liza Nichols, and I couldn't do a thing about either situation.
He muttered in semitheatrical fashion. Too softly to be understood and too loudly to be ignored.
"Speak up or shut up, Gus. All I hear is smidgies and it's making me crazy—sissies and stupids? Sounds like preschool."
"Sissie Bellinger. Remember her? Skinny blonde who was at the engagement party. It's all her fault. It was her idea to have a benefit show for Hayden Cole, to drag in half the Main Line at one hundred dollars a seat. And how could anybody object? Sissie's one of the biggest backers—patrons—of the Playhouse. Frustrated actress herself. She hangs out there half the time, driving everybody up the wall while she supervises her write-off. Damn her."
He stood up and limped toward the collection bin. I followed with my full tray, trying not to think of the wide-eyed kids in the starvation ads who would die for want of what I scraped off my plate.
"Benefit! Certainly didn't benefit Liza. She meets Mr. Candidate and kisses off everything she's worked and hoped for. Good-bye, New York, acting. Hello, Hayden, the hope of the bland people."
"Don't you think you're making a bit much of this? Maybe it's what she wanted all along."
"Hayden?" He slammed down his tray. "Hayden Cole? Maybe his money. Maybe his power. Maybe his status. Maybe just the ego-pumping thrill of being invited to share it. But Hayden himself? You've seen him—he could be her father, practically. Looks like a desiccated- Maybe I wasn't what she wanted, okay. Maybe I don't understand her. But I understand enough to know she never wanted any Hayden Cole!"
We climbed the stairs together. Neither the food nor the conversation had turned lunch into a leisurely affair, and there were forty minutes left before my last class. I could get some papers marked.
"I think I'll have a smoke," Gus said. "Coming along?"
"I don't smoke."
"Again?" He looked at his watch. "I'll try to catch Liza at the end of next period. If she shows."
"She'd better." It was the only aspect of Liza that concerned me at the moment.
Gus once designed a coat of arms for our school. On a shield of rulers and pencils rested a dunce cap. Below it, in elegant calligraphy read the legend: Philadelphia Prep: For The Rich and the Retarded. It was not adopted as the official school emblem, despite its hard kernel of truth. Our building, an imposing center-city mansion, is far more impressive than our students' minds. However, I am still not sure what I want to be when—or if—I grow up, and since my liberal arts degree does not include the courses in audiovisual aids and such that give you public school teaching credentials, I try not to make too much fun of Philly Prep because its slack admission policy provides me with students to teach and the means to pay my rent.
I sat at my desk marking compositions. I fought the urge to retreat from the plodding sentences, but eventually I lost, and I put my head down, wondering why I didn't inspire my classes the way Liza did. I liked to think it was because I was always there and Liza was an unreliable and sporadic treat. In any case, she made plays come alive and her delight was contagious.
She was currently generating interest in Macbeth with a class of seniors. They had only two months of school left, and they had never known a scholarly urge in the first place. Their grades were long since submitted to colleges, their fates by and large determined, and the two remaining months of school were no more than glorified day care in their eyes. Even so, they listened to Liza and to William Shakespeare. Until you've faced a crowd of graduating seniors, you have not experienced apathy and cannot appreciate the heroic and historic feat Liza had accomplished.
She was very involved with her work. "I'd like to rewrite this play," she'd told me once of Macbeth. "With a more sympathetic Lady M. She wasn't a bad old girl. No different from the rest of us, really. She wanted to get somewhere in life. She was just clumsy and overly moral, carrying on like that. She should have hung around until the crown settled onto her head. Once it was old, she wouldn't have gotten bad press."
"Come on," I'd protested. "There were a few murders on her record."
"You're naive, Amanda. Once you've arrived, it doesn't matter how you got there. People don't peep behind the stacks of money. Hayden's handsome trust was built on shaky land grants, Yankee slave ships, a lot of dead Indians and God knows what else. But it happened long ago. So who cares now? Who cared twenty years ago when his daddy was governor? Time washes off the blood, Mandy."
She paced around, thinking. "For example, my engagement ring. You'd be upset if you thought I'd stolen it. But if it's an antique—if it was stolen a few generations ago, would anybody care? See this locket? Hayden's mother gave it tome, and you should have seen the ceremony attached to the presentation."
She hunched over, transforming her curvaceous body into a sexless, heavy mass. "Liza, dear," she said in a low, nasal voice, "this was Grandmother Lucy Bolt Hayden's, and then her son, my father, Benjamin Sedgewick Hayden, gave it to my mother, and my mother gave it to me. Now you are to have it, and someday..."
Liza straightened up and became herself again. "Now where did Gramma Lucy get it, do you suppose? Her daddy probably dumped a shipload of slaves down South and blew part of the profits on a trinket for his kid. Does anybody care if this locket cost a life? Time has cleaned it off."
She'd picked up the twelfth-grade anthology with Macbeth in it. "The point is, Lady Macbeth should have stuck it out. Silly fool, washing and washing those bloody hands, when all it took was time. She was much too moral."
The two o'clock bell jarred me out of my reveries. Students barreled through the door, looking for Liza.
Their disappointment was nothing compared to mine. I waited. I took roll. I simmered. Then I broke into a boil. Maybe now that Liza was moving into money and power, she could break the rules the rest of us followed.
But that didn't mean I couldn't protest. "Please read the play silently for a few minutes. I'm going to see if I can find Miss Nichols."
I charged down the hallway, hoping to bump into Liza. But I saw only Gus, closing his classroom door.
"The actress is AWOL," I snapped, as if his pessimistic predictions had made it come true. I stormed past him toward the school office. I wasn't sure what I could accomplish, but I was angry and needed to let it out on someone, somewhere.
But not on Helga Putnam, the office witch. As I neared her, she pulled her gray cardigan tightly around her shoulders as if suddenly chilled. She didn't like her domain invaded by teachers. Or students. Or parents.
"Miss Pepper!" Helga never wasted time on pleasantries. "I was about to send a messenger to your room. When Miss Nichols completes her hour, send her here. She hasn't signed in at the office, and we cannot tolerate such unprofessional behavior!" Her nose glowed at the tip in a red blotch of congealed rage.
As furious as I was with Liza, I was not about to ally myself with the harpy behind the desk. "I'll tell her," I said. It wasn't really a lie. I would tell her—whenever I could. I walked over to the telephone at the far end of the wall. A grid of mailboxes covered much of the nearby wall. I'd emptied mine that morning, but it had been fed more squares of paper, more of Helga's reminders about "professional behavior."
The mailbox labeled "L. Nichols" was overflowing with old notices, new notices, and a small brown package. Since I'd already implied that Liza was in the building, I surreptitiously emptied the contents of her mailbox into my pocketbook.
My descent into a life of duplicity continued when I picked up the office phone. I could feel Putnam's eyes bore into my back. I could sense another memo about personal-call vouchers. I pushed down the button and spoke into the dead receiver. "Operator? What is the area code for Fargo, North Dakota?" There was a gasp behind me, then the scratch of pen on paper. "Of course I'll get the charges, Helga," I said without turning around.
"Thank you," I told the dead receiver, and then I dialed several numbers before I released the buttons, waited for a dial tone, and called my house. The phone rang fourteen times before I slammed it down. She wasn't there, then. She wasn't anywhere.
Helga snorted as I left the office. My class was midway through a small war or bacchanal. "Back in your seats," I said. "We'll read the play together."
The room was overheated, and the rain on the windows lulled us all. The kids droned through their lines. It wasn't the same without the resident actress.
Lance Zittsner, who had trouble reading an Exit sign, stammered and spluttered through his part. "Bo-bloody instructions, which being taught, return to—" He looked at me, sweating. "To plaque? Like on teeth?"
"To plague. 'We do but teach bloody instructions which, being taught, return to plague the inventor.' That means—"
But the 3:00 P.M. bell rang, and the students, passionately uninterested in my words or Shakespeare's, stampeded toward freedom. So much for anybody's bloody instructions.
I stood awhile at the rain-streaked windows. The bright slickers and umbrellas of escaping teenagers punctuated the square of park across the street. I adjusted the hems of my window shades. Philly Prep put great emphasis on keeping its rooms, if not its students, in pristine order.
When the building hushed with the unnatural quiet of an empty school, I left, carrying a wad of still unmarked papers.
I walked behind the school and splashed through the puddles on the makeshift parking lot. At least, having been late this morning, I was the blockee, not the blocked. It didn't make me happy enough. I thought about Gene Kelly tap-dancing through a downpour. The thought mellowed me out all the way to Good Samaritanism. Gus's car, nosed against the wall in front of mine, had an open rear window. Rain funneled in onto his torn upholstery. I tried squeezing my hand through the opening to unlock the door. Then I tried all the other doors. Failure. I ended up with my roll book in a puddle, my head sopping, and the realization that unlike me, Gene Kelly was given big bucks to make merry in the rain. So I drove home.
Or near home. I live on a cute street, as streets go. It has history, cobblestones, and hitching posts. It doesn't have parking. My lot is two blocks from home. This allows me to enjoy fully Philadelphia's range of weather conditions. In summer I can perspire profusely. In winter I can cultivate chilblains. And on this particular spring Monday, I was able to determine how much moisture can seep through suede boots during an exhilarating jog.
Nothing happened when I turned the key. At first I thought my locks had been changed or I was losing my mind. Then I had a mental breakthrough, and I turned the key back in the other, wrong direction.
The door opened.
Liza had left the house unlocked. The magnitude of her irresponsibility overwhelmed me. I kicked the door all the way open, slammed it shut behind me, and sloshed toward the small closet at the back of the first floor. As I pulled off my raincoat, I caught a glimpse of the kitchen floor. The coffee, with sugar, cream, and cat food, was still there.
I felt enraged, and then defeated, because there was nothing to be done about people like that who left the work of the world up to people like me. I was cold and damp, and I had boring compositions to mark, and I vowed that when I saw Liza again, I'd—
But in midvow I turned back toward the living room and swallowed whatever threat was building. Because I saw Liza. Or part of her. A foot in a small gray shoe sticking out from the side of the sofa near the fireplace.
Odd, unconnected thoughts popped through my brain. Nobody naps in shoes.
Strange position. No answer on telephone when I called. Unlocked door.
I moved in slow motion across the room.
Nobody naps on the hearth with a sofa nearby.
"Please, no." I heard myself say it, hoped Liza could hear it. "Please—"
Nobody naps on a hearth.
She lay crumpled and small, like a wrecked toy, her mouth half-open, her arms outstretched as if grasping for something to hold on to. Her green shirt was twisted, one jeans leg pulled up, showing a pale section of leg. Her dark eyes stared at me.
But they weren't her eyes. They were mannequin eyes, with no spark, no shine of life.
"No," I said, near tears. "Please, no!" I bent over her, hoping, insisting it was possible she was alive, almost convincing myself despite the discolored, scraped skin on her temple.
"No!" I screamed, putting my ear to her chest. "Please?" I listened, pressed, begged, found no pulse.
I shook her, shouting, as if I could insist her back to life. Then I stopped, remembering first aid rules. But I shook her once again, anyway, and felt bile rise in my throat as her head wobbled lifelessly.
I stumbled to the telephone, bracing myself against the kitchen counter, fighting off a black circle swallowing me.
I pushed the first number of the police.
She was barefoot when I left. She put shoes on because somebody came here. She didn't fall. She put on shoes to greet somebody.
Somebody had been here. Pushed her. Didn't get help. Watched her die.
I put the receiver on the counter softly and stood in the narrow kitchen, listening.
My heartbeat echoed up the stairway, off the bedroom walls, reaching whom? Who still hid upstairs?
I could see Liza's small foot at the end of the living room, could hear nothing but the ragged edge of my own breath.
Off the hook, the receiver buzzed angrily. I stared at it, frozen, my mouth half-open, listening to the pulsing silence coming down the stairway.
"Help." My voice was a painful whisper. "Help."
I left the phone hanging and ran out into the rain. I stood on the front step a second, inhaling the wet air until my lungs again functioned. Then I ran.
© Gillian Roberts.