New York |

Stay A While

by Alice Kaltman

edited by Emily Schultz

I needed a goddamn purpose. Everyone around me was, pardon the lingo, finding themselves. Women my age were going on yoga retreats, throwing clay, volunteering at homeless shelters. None of that appealed to me, and I wasn’t going to do something just for the sake of doing something. There I was, 70 years old, without a clue as to what to do. I’d spent years trudging along, raising kids, feeding a family, being a benign faculty wife. Life hadn’t been some soap opera, not like some people’s I knew. Quite the opposite. It had been pretty darn boring. At least the other old gals ended up with flexible spines, leaky flower vases, or goody-good self satisfaction. All I had was my craw and the yucky feeling stuck in it.

I was taking a break from folding laundry, kerplopped on the cellar stairs, slurping some tepid Lipton’s and surveying the dismal reality of my “finished basement.” The ping pong table covered with file boxes filled with ancient tax returns; shreddable, decades old. My husband Kevin’s saggy punching bag hanging useless and unused in the corner; like a bum at an abandoned bus stop. My son Greg’s teddy bear slumped in a beanbag chair. What was that bear’s name again? Grayface. That was it. Such an unoriginal name. But Greg had never been the most creative child, so no surprises there. My daughter Sophie’s pink Barbie roller skates. Did anyone even roller skate anymore? Sophie surely didn’t. Now it was yoga. Yoga, yoga, yoga. Or triathlon training. All she ever talked about on the rare occasions I actually saw her in the flesh.

The deflated hoppity hop ball. The outdated VCR. The badminton birdies. All those spiky little Legos. Piles of skirts and slacks from a different era, a long ago size.

And the wet bar. Kevin’s idea, of course. A nine foot long, red leather, studded embarrassment. For entertaining, or so he’d said back when we’d installed it forty years earlier. We’d had guests down there five times tops, and all those boozy parties were within the first year. I wasn’t much for entertaining. And back then if the wife didn’t make the social plans then there were no social plans. Mostly Kevin used the bar to sneak shots while I was upstairs attending to two toddlers, a task I found brutal and boring. Motherhood hadn’t been a sparkly fiesta for me. I myself was an only child, raised on a farm by uninspired parents. Hand me a slippery, grimy hog, no problem. But wiggly and whiny children? No Siree Bob.

I got up from my seat slowly, the knees a touch arthritic. It was time to get back upstairs to the good old daily grind. I took one last look around the basement and thought: what a waste of space.

Later that evening I was watching HDTV on the old portable black and white while fixing Kevin’s dinner. That home renovation show with those handsome young twins was on. You know the show I mean. The real estate agent twin is a snappy dresser and the other one has a bit more facial hair. Anyway, that’s when it came to me. A sputtering lightbulb of an idea. What if I fixed the cellar up, rented it out? I was a hard worker. Renovating the basement could be my purpose. Heck. There was money to be made.

I could care less if Kevin put up a fuss. Since he’d retired from the Comp Lit department he did all his drinking upstairs anyway. No more trips to the basement to sneak a few. Sometimes he walked over to the faculty club where he found a captive audience for his long-winded monologues. I’ll bet his former colleagues nodded their heads, pretending to listen, thanked their lucky stars that Kevin had finally retired. Lord knew he’d made a hash of it as Chair.

* * *

“The basement has always been creepy,” I said over ham loaf and green beans. “Even after we loaded it with toys the kids never really liked playing down there.”

“Ah ha,” Kevin twirled his fork in the air. Here it comes I thought, some edict from on high. “That’s because their impressionable minds were filled with horrific images from all that TV you let them watch. Monsters lurking behind basement doors. If you’d encouraged them to read every now and then...”

Neither of our kids were big into books. But who could blame them with Kevin breathing down their necks, spewing sermons about literary crap for hours every night? As soon as they left home they went as far afield from academia as possible. Sophie, an anorexic exercise junkie and Greg an unambitious Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owner.

“People make a killing on these short-term home rentals. We can rent it to visiting professors. Or parents. Or those alumni who take over the town on homecoming weekend.”

Kevin shook his head. “The idea of total strangers in my basement causes me a great deal of unease,” With another loose wave of his scotch-holding hand he added, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows.”

“We can use the extra money,” I said.

Kevin sliced his ham loaf. His knife hand was relatively steady, but his head was wobbling like a dashboard doggie’s. Four drinks already. Three sheets to the wind.

“Your pension is peanuts.”

He looked at me with nothing good in his stare. He was glowering. Glowering. How’s that for a good literary word from a good literary wife? Then he mumbled something sloshy.

“I can gussy the place up for next to nothing.”

“Ha. Next to nothing. I’ve heard that before,” Kevin grumbled.

“Get a grip,” I snapped. “I’m no spendthrift and you know it.”

Kevin heaved one of his dramatic, condescending sighs. “Suit yourself, Martha Stewart.”

I got up and took my plate to the garbage and dumped the remains deep in the bin’s belly. My plate made a clackety clack racket as I tossed it in the sink. I knew the plate wouldn’t break. It was made of a very strong polymer, could withstand pressure, breakage and all sorts of temperatures. That’s why I had bought it in the first place.

* * *

The next morning I pulled out the Yellow Pages and let my fingers do the walking. I hired Pedro and Carlos, an Ecuadorian handyman duo to help me transform the basement. They rewired the whole kit and caboodle, turned the wet bar into a kitchenette, scraped and repainted the walls, laid a decent sisal carpet over the cold cement floor, installed new fixtures, and added a shower stall in the mildewed half bath last used in the early nineties by Greg and his pot smoking friends.

I didn’t bother to call the kids to see if they wanted any of their old stuff. Why open up that can of worms? I’d held on long enough. I dropped garbage bags heaped with clothes and toys at Goodwill. The old files were shredded at the local Staples. The VCR player went curbside and was gone the next morning along with the beanbag chair.

I forgot to return phone calls. Library books went overdue. Milk soured. Midwestern dust settled on every possible household surface. Kevin was left to fend for himself for many meals, which he really didn’t mind because it was another excuse to head down to the club, blab away, get soused, and eat overrated hamburgers, courtesy of the university.

I felt great, as if I were a Broadway producer putting on a show. I shopped for furnishings and decor and kept my purchases as far from Kevin as possible. I avoided him like the plague. Not that we spent much time together anymore in the first place. But while I was on such a roll, the last thing I needed were more snarky Martha Stewart comments. I didn’t want anyone raining on my parade.

* * *

Six weeks later the apartment was good as gold, and I was ready to embark on my new purposeful career. The night before the first guests were due I thought, why not inaugurate the place? Do a test run? At 9 p.m. I shuffled past the TV room door in bathrobe and slippers, a shower caddy swinging in my hand, a towel draped jauntily over my shoulder. I felt giddy, like I was on my way to a fancy spa.

“Well, pray tell. Where the hell are you headed?” Kevin called from his La-Z-Boy throne.

I was feeling so good that I paused and considered asking Kevin to join me. Back in the beginning we’d gone at it like a couple of feral cats. All spray and sweat and sauciness. He claimed to get hard just thinking about my country girl naiveté. I’d get wet if he as much as uttered one line of his fancy-pants poetry.

Now I glanced at Kevin as he glanced at the TV. The scotch glass rested on his bloated belly, moving up and down with each wheezy breath. Pale flesh and gray hairs poked out between the straining buttons of his Oxford shirt. The shirt I’d ironed that afternoon that now looked like a wrinkled rag. I waited for a smidgen of the old randiness to bubble up in me. But nope. Nothing there. That ship had sailed a long time ago.

“I’m going to check out the accommodations,” I said.

“Ah oui. Le grand appartement,” Kevin drawled. “Don’t forget to change the boudoir sheets après.”

Mr. Maurice Chevalier. As if I would’ve forgotten. “I wasn’t born in a barn, Kevin,” I sighed. “Even if I was raised on a farm.”

He lifted his glass. “Touché.” He glugged the diluted dregs. He’d be back at the liquor cabinet in moments, but for now he fiddled with the remote and turned the volume way up. Birds screeched. A nature show. The sound of crows chased me down the basement stairs.

Peace descended after I lay down on the brand new apartment bed. After a few minutes paging through a National Geographic plucked from the magazines I’d arranged fan-styled on the nightstand, I was ready for sleep. I snapped off the reading lamp and settled in like a chicken cutlet sandwiched between crispy 400 count cotton sheets. I tossed my arms akimbo, letting my fingers trace the carvings of the brand new pine headboard. I shut my eyes and breathed deeply, enjoying the smell of fresh paint and carpet glue. New starts should always smell slightly toxic, I thought as I drifted off.

* * *

I wish I could tell you that from then on I was a happy, purposeful woman. But things weren’t that simple. Sooner than you can say Jack Rabbit, renting the apartment became all consuming in very tedious ways. The bookings. The PayPal account. The chitchat and small talk with prospective customers. The online ordering of replacement towels, pillowcases. The tidying, vacuuming, shower scrubbing. The mystery stain removals. There I was, doing what I’d done my whole adult life: cleaning up after people. A tired old workhorse. It didn’t feel purposeful. It felt like drudgery.

* * *

After about three months of rental monotony, I found a scarf while stripping the bed. I’d seen Adrianne Wiener with this scarf fluffed under her chin the day she and her husband checked in to the apartment for their four day-three night stay. It was one of those wispy, barely there scarves that women of a certain age knot around their necks to obscure their droopy skin. There it was, wedged between the headboard and mattress, like a secret. Like a sign.

I sat down on the bed and fingered the slight bit of silk. I’d never been a scarf wearer myself, too fussy for my tastes, though I do have quite the turkey wattle that could use obscuring. So I don’t know what compelled me to do what I did next. I tied the scarf around my own neck, which aside from not being my style is not something I should’ve done, because heaven knows what other possibly unsanitary purposes Adrianne Wiener might’ve used that scarf for, aside from tying it around her age-spotted, wrinkly neck. But there I was, against my better judgment, looping and fluffing it under my very own chin.

Suddenly I felt an odd tingling up my spine and before I knew it I was basking in a glow of giddy good humor I’d never felt before in my life. I felt no compunction to get up and go, to do my job, to soldier on. I felt like the kind of person who settles in, who knows how to relax. Someone with a chipper attitude. The kind of person who laughs a lot. A passive, happy person. A lighthearted, fun-loving, where’s-the-party type of person.

The person I imagined Adrianne Wiener to be.

Mind you, I was not one given to flights of fancy. Cockamamie fantasies were Kevin’s domain, with his stacks of unfinished stories, novels, and sonnets accumulating for decades. Him with his Ivy League degrees. Me, barely making it through rural high school. I had enough sense to know what was happening to me didn’t have to do with imagination. It was a visitation. I felt right as rain.

Then the honky-dory Adrianne Wiener sensations fizzled out, like helium sputtering from a pin-holed balloon. I was back to dull normal after twenty minutes. The used bed linens were in a crumpled heap to my right. The fresh ones to my left. There was still dusting, vacuuming, and scrubbing to do. I needed to get on the horn and confirm a two-week booking with some chemistry big shot from Paraguay. So I took Adrianne Wiener’s scarf off, shoved it in my apron pocket, and got back to work.

Later that day, the scarf was in a padded envelope lying on the post office scale about to be mailed to Adrianne Wiener COD. Just as I was about to close my side of the bulletproof window and send it on its merry way, I grabbed it back and left the post office.

I ripped open the Jiffy Pak in the car, tore up the note I’d put in for Adrienne Wiener, shook out the scarf and tied it around my neck once more. My heart was beating tom-tom fast as I drove home. I wore the scarf for the rest of the day. While I pushed my cart around the supermarket. While I paid bills. While cooking Kevin’s pot roast. I wore it until I undressed and got ready for bed.

I’d like to say it kept me in that easy breezy state of mind, the Adrianne Wiener state of mind, but it didn’t. I suppose I felt a bit less me-like, but that might’ve just been because I was taking a “fashion risk” wearing the damn scarf at all. I didn’t feel transported the same way I had that morning.

But I kept the scarf anyway.

* * *

I started keeping other forgotten things also. You’d be surprised how often folks leave stuff behind. It’s shocking, really. Books, magazines, underwear, toothbrushes, medications, hats, gloves, tiny figurines, photographs, socks. Lots of socks.

I’d test out every lost item. And like a magic spell, each time I felt a distinct emotion that was not my own. Far from my own.

Some were horrible. Gut-wrenching despair. Bowel-clearing fear. Panic to beat the band. Visiting professor Charles Huang’s copy of Time Magazine left me weepy and snot-nosed. The watch cap left by an attractive young man named Colin McGarry caused me such heartache I thought I might die.

On the other hand, Beth Fartung’s sweaty jogging bra shot me through with energy and pep, in spite of a rancid stench. The world was my oyster for the twenty minutes I fondled Max Jacob’s Polident tube. And my goodness, what Sally Marks’ toothbrush did for me! I can still taste that minty residue on my gums. Hadn’t felt that hot-to-trot for years.

Yes, I put on other people’s undergarments. Stuck their dental hygiene items in my mouth. But please don’t be disgusted. I couldn’t help myself. Worlds of emotion had opened to me for the first time in my life. I loved it all. The I-wanna-die moments as tasty as the ain’t-life-grand peaks. Let’s face it. I was addicted to other folks’ feelings.

* * *

But here’s the problem; the problem, that was, aside from sneaking around, sniffing, rubbing, holding, or wearing stuff that didn’t belong to me. Each item was only good for one high. After twenty minutes of feeling someone else’s feeling, my life resumed its blank and boring regularity.

So I cleaned, booked, cleaned again. After each renter left I scoured the apartment hoping they’d been careless. That they’d done me the favor of leaving something marvy behind to kept me afloat. I should have returned the items after I’d gotten high on them, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. I kept all the Forgottens, as I liked to call them, in a black lawn and leaf bag shoved deep in the recesses of my closet. I couldn’t part with them.

My own upstairs home was a shambles. No food in the fridge, dust bunnies living in every corner. I would press my ear against the basement door listening for snippets of conversations. I wanted to get an inkling of what goodies I might inhale or rub up against once my renters were gone. Quarrels, giggles, sobs. You name it, I’d take it. I’d stand for hours by my living room window, peeking through my lace curtains at the walkway that led to the outside cellar stairs, hoping to catch a glimpse as these strangers came and went. I wanted to see how they looked when they thought no one was watching. Did they smile? Scowl? Did they trudge, downward and dogged? Was that a skip? A devil-may-care jaunt?

Then, as is the way with addiction, mine got worse. I stopped waiting for turnover time. When the coast was clear, say, when anxious parents left to meet their sophomore son at his dorm, or a nostalgic alum stumbled off to the big game, or that lonely professor went to grab a bite at Chili’s, I’d sneak downstairs and swipe stuff. You know, just in case nothing was left behind, well, naturally. A sock here, a hair comb there. Just to keep the mojo going. Nothing anyone would truly miss.

Or so I told myself.

* * *

Months went by, feelings were felt. No one ever suspected me of taking anything. I mean really, look at who I was: an old lady living in a large colonial house on a tree-lined street with my retired academic lush of a husband. What would someone like me want with someone’s stinky drawers or crumbled bus ticket?

Almost a year passed when my daughter Sophie deigned to honor us with one of her rare visits. She’d stopped by with our grandkids en route to a local birthday party. Our house was on the way, you see. No bending over backwards for Sophie, unless she was literally bending over backwards in one of her Jazzercise classes. This was a visit based on convenience. Convenience combined with free booze.

Sophie and I sat in the living room, she with wine, me, my Lipton’s while the grandkids wandered around the house looking for trouble.

“Geez, Ma. When was the last time you cleaned this place?” Sophie swiped her finger along the dusty glass topped coffee table.

“My back’s been bothering me,” I lied. “Doctor said to lay off any housework for a couple of weeks. And Lord knows your father isn’t going to grab a sponge.”

“Well, it’s not like you ever asked him to,” she sighed and took a sip.

Oh, that old tune again, I thought. If I wasn’t careful I’d be in for one of her feminist mumbo-jumbo rants.

We were sitting in a not very companionable silence when Kylie, the eight-year-old, came prancing out of my bedroom holding a pair of black rabbit fur earmuffs.

“Can I have these, Gramma?” she whined.

Kylie had obviously been rummaging in my closet. Gotten her little paws deep into my lawn and leaf bag filled with Forgottens. The earmuffs belonged to Mrs. Smith, a recent two-day, one-night guest. A woman drowning in fountains of worry, but with a kind heart shining through her muck. I knew this because Mrs. Smith’s earmuffs had given me twenty minutes of jitters and warm glow. Two feelings for the price of one. A rare double whammy.

“Kylie,” Sophie barked. “Don’t go grabbing things that don’t belong to you.”

Kylie ignored her mother and stared at me. “So can I?” She snapped the earmuffs on her head and stood in front of me with a “come on, do something you dull old wooden stump” smirk on her face.

I did nothing. I was in a state of shock. I probably did look like a dull old wooden stump, but inside I was watching and waiting. Would the earmuffs work on Kylie? Juice her up? Would she become nervous and kindly? An eight-year-old version of sweet old Mrs. Smith?

Finally I spoke. “How are you feeling, Kylie?”

“Fine,” she pouted. “So, can I have ’em?”

Greedy little creature, I thought. Same as always. I kept watching. A change could still be coming.

“Any tingles?” I asked.

A crease as deep as the Missouri River formed between her freckled little brow. “That’s a stupid question.” Rude as ever.

“Do you feel loving? A little jittery?”

Sophie groaned from her slouched seat on the sofa. “What’s with the freaky questions, Ma?”

“Can’t I have a conversation with my granddaughter who I never see?” Covering up with a guilt-inducing jab was not my usual style. But desperate times, as the saying goes.

“Gimme a break.” Sophie rolled her eyes and took another swig of Chardonnay.

“Puleeeeease, Gramma?” Kylie whined.

I studied my granddaughter. Was that a softening around her eyes? Tension in that pouty little mouth?

Kylie broke the spell. “What. Ever.” She turned away from me and skipped towards the den where her little brother Joshy was watching educational cartoons with Kevin.

“I’ve got a new pair of earmuffs...I’ve got a new pair of earmuffs...” she sang. From the back she looked like a pint-sized airport worker, wearing giant ear protectors, taxiing planes to the gate.

“Where did you get those earmuffs anyway?” Sophie asked as she chugged her third glass of wine. She drank like a fish. In this, she was her father’s daughter. I wondered if her sweaty workouts counteracted the effects.

“On sale at Target.” I lied.

“Seriously?” she chuckled. “They’re so not you.”

But they were, I thought. For twenty blissful minutes a few weeks back, they were very much me.

* * *

I thought that would be the end of it, but I couldn’t stop. Couldn’t keep my paws off other people’s personalities. I’d slid down a slippery slope.

At least I started nabbing things no one would notice. Used dental floss. Tissues from the garbage pail. Toe nail clippings. Not stealing exactly. Discarded trash, really. I was lucky if I got a five-minute high off any of it.

I was at it for another two months, rifling through debris and plucking hairs off pillowcases to support my habit when the inevitable happened. Sidney Krackowski was three days into his six day stay. He’d gone for his morning run. I’d timed him his first two mornings. I had a good forty minutes to go downstairs and find something to nuzzle, sniff, maybe even eat before he returned.

Sidney left me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Right smack-dab on the nightstand. A Red Sox cap, resting upside down, like a candy bowl. It even had a few of Sidney’s black curls stuck on the inside brim. I should’ve just plucked the hairs and sniffed, but there was a greater temptation. I knew what goodies the cap held. I’d eavesdropped Sidney’s nightly sob-fest. I’d heard him on his phone begging someone, his wife most likely, to “please, please reconsider for the kids sake” telling her “I’m lost without you.” I’d noticed his red-rimmed eyes before he snapped on his fancy sunglasses to go jog away the pain every morning.

Yes, you got it. I put the cap on and lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. Within moments, the tingle started. Soon yummy tears rolled down my cheeks. I was swimming in sadness, a perfect lump in my heart the size of a grapefruit.

Then I heard it. A gasp.

“Mrs. McIntire?”

I opened my eyes. Sidney Krackowski loomed over me, sweat dripping off his forehead and onto my bosom.

I bolted upright and put the cap back on the nightstand. Sidney’s sadness left me, replaced with my very own sense of shame. “Ah, well,” I stammered. “Is that yours?”

He just stared at me, cock-eyed.

I got up off the bed and smoothed my skirt. “Well, geez Louise. Apologies. What a coinky dink. My husband has one just like it. He thought maybe he’d left it down here, before, before...”

Before what?

Sidney picked up his cap, pinching the brim with his thumb and forefinger. He examined it as it dangled from his hand, like a dirty object. Like he might catch something nasty from me.

* * *

I had to stop. I just had to. No more renting the apartment. Two weeks passed and all I did was clean the house. Upstairs, that is. Downstairs was no go. Off-limits. I knew if I went down there I’d instantly claw the carpet, lick the walls, or rub my face on the shower curtain in search of a stray emotion. Instead I wandered from room to room upstairs, like a cleaning zombie.

When Kevin asked why I decided to close up shop, I said I’d caught one of the renters sneaking around our home.

“Going through your pile of papers, no less,” I lied.

“Aha! You see?” he said. “I told you strangers lurking in our basement was a bad idea.” He sat at the dining table with a giant cheese platter in front of him. A “snack.” He’d been shoveling wedges of cheddar the size of roof shingles into his mouth.

I nodded and sprayed some Lemon Pledge close to his platter.

He kept eating.

I just kept on cleaning.

* * *

That night we met our son and his family at Rossetti’s Ristorante to celebrate our grandson Brandon’s fifth birthday.

I was in a daze for most of the meal. I barely paid attention to the chatter, Kevin’s pontifications, Greg’s boring doughnut stories, my daughter-in-law Karen’s attempts to engage me in womanly drivel, the grandkids’ knock-knock jokes. Elevator Muzak, all of it.

In other words, things were back to normal.

Meanwhile, a gaudily dressed woman was laughing like a hyena at the table next to ours. Her husband was staring down at his plate with a face as red as the marinara sauce dripping over his pasta. I couldn’t help but stare, and envy.

I wanted to be in the throes of her yuck-fest, to get as loud and sloppy as she was. Have my own laugh riot. I wanted it so badly I could taste it. When the woman got up from her seat to go to the Ladies it took every ounce of strength I had not to swipe the tacky beaded shawl off the back of her chair, wrap it around my own shoulders and wait for the fun to begin.

But instead I turned towards my own family and tried to listen.

“Hey Mom,” said Greg, his mouth full of eggplant parmigiana, “Dad tells me you’ve decided to stop renting the basement apartment.”

“Yup,” I nodded.

“Well, maybe I should move in for a while,” he elbowed his wife. “Get a little rest from the old ball and chain.”

Karen elbowed him back. “You’re so funny I forgot to laugh.”

And then it occurred to me. I looked at them all. My flesh and blood. They were vessels. They had feelings. Okay, maybe not the most pizzazz-y feelings, but feelings all the same. Maybe I could emote off them instead of strangers. The way a conscientious vampire feeds off rodents instead of humans. Keep it all in the family, so to speak. Maybe at least feel...something.

I didn’t want to experiment with any of Kevin’s shady emotions, and Greg and Karen were too far across the table to steal from. So, while he was busy gleefully bopping his baby brother on the head with a buttered roll, I pulled the straw out of Brandon’s chocolate milk and put it in my mouth.

It took a moment before anyone noticed.

Kevin’s scotch glass clinked to the tabletop. “Jesus, woman,” He hissed. “What are you doing?”

“I’m waiting,” I said.

“Waiting for what?” someone else asked. I don’t recall who. I was deep in expectation. Willing that telltale tingle to start up my spine. To take me away.

Eventually there was uproarious laughter.

But it came from everyone but me. It should’ve hit me by then.

At least the birthday boy got a good birthday chuckle seeing his old grandma with a striped straw sticking out of her puckered mouth.

But me? I got nothing. I was, and will forever be, the same old, same old me.