Allison at the Abyss
Because the month fell hard on many others in her life, January fell hard on Allison. The tilt of the earth put a tilt in her life. The short daylight made the days long. The theoretical sunrise did not happen until after the school day began and the sun retreated soon after the school day ended. The sun, as if ashamed of itself, made only a few bare-faced appearances. A few days of snow, a day or two of blizzard, and many days of dingy cloud cover. In the gloom her parents fell more deeply into the bottle. Because her smile shined all the brighter against the clouds, she was a substitute sun for many people. It was in January in fifth grade that Austin had given her the nickname of Mother. She was an abiding warm reassurance and a sponge for Austin and Austin’s mother, for many students, for the school nurse, for a custodian, and for more teachers than she knew. Only Mr. Corcoran told her so.
At home it was only her and her two parents, which meant with few exceptions only her. When it was only her father in the house with her—her mother used bridge nights, shopping trips, and unexplained reasons to be gone and therefore drink away from home—Allison had to pad around the house like a secretive cat to ensure her father’s alcoholism was his pretended secret from her.
On the second Monday of the month Allison found a long shopping list on the kitchen counter. However, something new was beside it: one of her mother’s credit cards and keys to both her parents’ cars. The message in the keys and credit card was uplifting for its stated freedom and trust, and the message was downcasting for its freedom and trust, which said that even her parents saw her as Mother, a mature woman with not a single wild oat to sow, unlike her two bothers, who who had sown bushel baskets.
On the second Tuesday she dust mopped past Constantine’s closed door. Even though he usually kept his door closed, this day it looked closed. She was tempted to see if it was locked. Only tempted. Thursday was the same. She could ask the receptionist. Any other month she may well have asked. This month she did not want to face the woman’s judgments implied by words and proclaimed by the sweep of her eyes over Alison’s body. As she windexed the one-hundred-and-three pictures, Allison realized one of the things drawing her to her boyfriend: he carried his own inner strength and did not ever call her Mother.
On Saturday she vacuumed the Blues Lounge, glancing often at the empty chair. When something brushed against the side of her leg, she jumped in surprise, which startled Muffin, who wanted his rightful share of attention from Mother. Allison shut off the vacuum and sat on the floor with her legs splayed open towards the retreating dog, who accepted the apology and the hug with her brushy tail sweeping the carpet.
A cracking elderly voice spoke above them. “That dog there is missing that skinny old guy. He’s healing up with some relatives . . . I think maybe he asked me to tell you that. We old folks heal up slow.”
Allison smiled up into the unsmiling deeply wrinkled face of an ancient woman, not a man as she expected by the voice. It was the hair that caught Allison’s eyes first. Long straight gray and white streaked hair pulled behind her ears, a flat face with small features, soft gray eyes, colorless lips, and only a slight chin. She gave Allison an impassive stare, as if the little light left in her eyes was about to flicker out. Her hands were clasped behind her back as if to show she no longer embraced life. Allison, who had seen the woman before slowly walking the halls alone, was seized by a sudden sadness. To Allison’s relief, the woman toddled back to her room across the hall from Constantine’s, her hands still clasped behind her back. As Allison sat caressing the dog, she realized why the woman made her feel so sad, even lonely. Allison finished her vacuuming but demurred from dusting the furniture. The thought of the lemon spray was too much. Muffin followed her from lounge to lounge.
Allison walked home in the cold calm air to an empty house, as near as she could tell. Toast and cold canned spaghetti fit her mood as she sat in the living room hoping either or both parents would come home. She tried without success to write a theme about The Raven, a poem that she liked for its plaintive cry of “nevermore,” the meaning of which she now recognized, which made writing the theme impossible.
The next Thursday, this being the season of colds and flu thereby reducing the staff of Green Acres, Allison was pressed into duty serving dinner with her smiles as a condiment. Constantine hobbled in with his cane to join the sneezing and coughing choir of the dining room. They exchanged only brief hellos, but Allison’s mood was lifted by his presence. She was looking forward to a conversation which would pass over her head but which would provide her undemanding human contact.
She Sees Mauve
“I am your Saturday morning cartoon,” Constantine announced as Allison pushed the vacuum into the Blues Lounge. He elevated his slippered foot and the cane from the ottoman. Perv lifted his head from the other leg to stare at Allison in accusation of pleasure interrupted.
Allison laughed and turned on a high-beam smile in joy at seeing him back in what she thought of his rightful place, with which he would not have agreed. When she saw his body shudder, at first she thought it was pain. Then, in a moment of conscious maturation, she realized it was a reaction to her smile. The deep emotional response she had evoked made her retreat a half step.
Thinking she did not understand his joke and to cover his shudder, he said, “Except I should have a monstrous swaddle of bandages on the foot like Yosemite Sam after he has shot himself in the foot with his blunderbuss.”
She laughed again, even though she had only a vague idea who Yosemite Sam was. With only a light smile, she approached him, where she saw a stack of unopened envelopes on his lap. Looking up at her, he said, “Good morning, Youth.”
“What do I call you?” She asked, arching her left eyebrow in a parabolic curve, a trick he had never seen before.
He hid his reaction. “Constant-Pain, which now has a second meaning, making me the bearer and not the giver of pain. Does Mr. Not-Right drive you in the cold? It’s what, thirty below out.”
She grinned like a mischievous child and shook her head no. “I have my father’s car today. Are you healing? I mean your heel.”
“My sawbones says my bones are no longer Hematite, but I can hobble about.” He lifted the envelopes. She could see a mauve envelope in the stack. “It seems word of my plight is abroad. Your father’s car—a moment of trust from him? What is the protocol for get well cards? Do I answer with thank you cards? Do I send them a copy of my medical report?”
“My father, well, my father . . . Aren’t you gonna open up your cards?”
He hesitated. “Eventually . . . my thoughts were elsewhere . . .”
She pointed at the envelopes and smiled her superior knowledge. “It’s mauve, that envelope. My friend Austin told me the name of the color.”
He pulled the envelope from the stack. “Unfortunately I can no longer walk myself to McDonalds.”
A cook interrupted them. Could Allison come help serve lunch in an hour. Yes, she could. Could she come back to help with dinner? Yes, she could do that, too.
“I better finish up quick,” she told him.
“But first, please give the Blues Lounge a spray of yellow.” She did.
At lunch she made a point of smiling directly into the face of the woman with long hair hooked behind her ears. The woman did not seem to recognize her. When Allison saw the other three women at the table were jealous of the extra attention, she treated them the same.
Allison drove home for the afternoon to find both her parents up and about. Her father asked, “How have you been, Ally?” not seeming to realize what the question revealed. Yes, Allison could use the car for the rest of the day. Her parents did not ask where she was going. They were having a small dinner party this evening; could Allison do some shopping? Her mother had the list ready. As she went to the door, in the lightest tone she could muster, Allison said, “Cinderella is off on her errands.”
At dinner in Green Acres Constantine limped in for the last shift, the last to arrive, the last to finish. Had he calculated this, Allison wondered. She sat down across from him. “I could drive you to McDonalds,” she offered with a smile of curiosity.
It took him seconds to find the thread of their aborted conversation. “I was only joking, at least in part . . . Mauve, you say. Once the fashion of Europe, a hundred years ago—mauve. See the useless things chronicled in history . . . she was a mauve person, still is I deduce from her stationary.”
“You’ve gotten mauve envelopes before, like in McDonalds last summer.”
For fear of its power, he avoided seeing her smile of feigned innocence. She watched him consider his reply. “Youth, if we are decent people, we retain something of those with whom we walked at least a few steps down the road of life. Have you observed many of the mauve missives?”
Her first response was a do-I-dare smile. His smile was not meant to encourage her, but it did. “Is it from a love from your past, who . . . well, hurt you?”
Constantine snapped back his head. “You imagine me as jilted, perhaps by an ex-wife or the like?”
She let her proud-that-I-did-dare-ask smile be her answer.
“Your problem, Youth, is that you know me, I assume have developed a liking for me . . .” She nodded her head. “Thus you assume I am the aggrieved party, not the aggriever.”
“Oh.” A small laugh matched her confused smile. “I guess we did, Austin and me. Are you . . .I mean did you . . . leave her?”
“Austin and you? My small life has fueled the youthful romantic inclinations of two young ladies? Who would have thought that!”
Allison decided he was not offended.
“To not love as you are loved is to aggrieve. To withdraw without offering closure was cowardice, but you told yourself it was for her benefit too, so she could move on with her life. Half a century later, when you have long forgotten the whole non-romance, forgotten the few steps you took down the road of life with the person, then when you are located and messaged, you have a new regret of lost youth, of lost opportunities. You look back down the road of life and see errors, other unintended hurts. You discover it was all complicated, but your memory has made it simple. Not that I was wrong for not loving in Miss Mauve’s case, as she tells me, or did in the three of the several letters I read, that she forgives me and only wants to renew friendship.”
“You don’t want to?”
“Her forgiveness names a fault, a sin, which I did not want to address, of which I was informed by forgiveness, which I know not how to answer. Tell me, Youth, is it a sin to not love back, in the romance-boy-girl sense?”
She answered with a little-girl-lost smile, lost as she was in his morass of emotions.
“Your parents . . . do not do right by you . . . do not measure up to what you offer, if I read your correctly.”
She nodded. Her smile faded.
“I will not delve further . . . Miss Mauve, Mrs. Mauve, the Widow Mauve down in Florida, grandmother of eleven, mails thick envelopes as invitation into her life. Who was I all those years ago? Who was she? Who are we now? I do not want another attachment in my life, one that comes with a teaspoon of guilt and a cup of regrets. Do you understand?”
“No. I’m confused.”
“I either accept her love, a sort of boy-and-girl epistolary love, or I withdraw again. I never rejected. I only withdrew. I had commitments, important family commitments in a way families do not matter today. I had plans. I was focused. How much did my focus put other important things out of focus? Not so much her or only her. She is not a lost love, but a fumble, a symbol of many fumbles, now fresh again in my unoccupied mind. Not a fumble on the one yard line, but at the fifty yard line in a football game for which I had no helmet.”
“My parents ignore me. They treat me like I’m an adult and have for a long time. They trust me. Sometimes I want to be untrustworthy, you know, to rebel, but I never do. Austin laughs at me about that. Kids at school call me Mother. My parents hardly know I’m around. I feel like Cinderella somewhere else in the house while they . . . live their lives. I know their jobs can be a load, ‘specially Mother’s . . .”
“You are saying they withdrew. One should be allowed to cordially resign from an unwanted romance. One cannot withdraw from parenthood. Yet people do. They did in my day, too. I knew children of such homes. None were as wonderful as you.”
A woman from the kitchen quietly interrupted to take away Constantine’s half-eaten food.
“Youth, do you need to get back to work?”
“No. I only serve.”
He laughed lightly. “Cinderella even at Gray Acres.” Her answering smile was aspartame
“Youth, life is easier if you ignore and do not see the other side, or both sides, if you are in the middle. Against her mauve backdrop, I see the widow’s side of our . . . whatever it was to her, it was not that to me. But, I was not honest. In my job as project manager I stood between two sides who were ignorant of each other and took refuge in their ignorance.
“To the owners of the company the workers were lazy and demanding. Some were; some always are. The workers had families, had bills to pay, had a right to recreation. Had problems that sometimes were more important than their jobs. Got sick. But most worked hard, all but a few doing their job, wanting to feel appreciated and rewarded for their skill and sweat.
“To the workers the owners were Andrew Carnegie. A far-off rich family living in luxury from their labor, living either perfect or morally despicable lives, depending on which point of view made them feel better or worse, whatever they wanted to believe at the moment. The owners, too, had lives and families and problems and worries. They were risking their money and well-being with each project on which they were the lowest bidder.”
“Why didn’t you quit?”
“Is it all that simple? No. Everything is a balance of rewards and stresses. I earned good money. It is satisfaction to build, to take a project from conception to completion by seeing the steps along the way. To know you have a skill others need and from which others benefit. To see yourself become better at something important.”
“You were too busy to marry.” It was a statement.
“How have you and Austin decided that?”
“Are we wrong? Well, only me; I decided that just now.”
“A job is not life.”
“So you did marry?”
“Irrelevant to the point at hand, if there is a point at hand.”
“Because you are the point at hand. My generation grew up faster than yours. We had to mature earlier. Yet somehow you have grown up more quickly than we did. What is wrong with being mature?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I am a foolish old man, an emotional old man. More than my heel has been bruised. It is said old age is a second childhood. Ere long I will be an infant. See, I can barely walk. My nieces love me enough to put up with me. That is quite wonderful. I must tell them so.”
“It would be the mature thing to do.”
“Why do you want to go to McDonalds?”
“I appreciate their trash.” He laughed. “Now, off! Me to my room and you to home before it gets too cold for your father’s car to start.”
Home Is Not on the Range
Spring and Summer, 1996
In May Constantine accepted a walker. “To give your bones a chance to heal,” the doctor politely lied, with which Constantine forewent his truth-speaking manner. Neither spoke of his weakening muscles. His nieces furloughed him from Green Acres more often than not, for which he expressed his gratitude, which taught them what they did not want to learn. His constant pain made him less their Uncle Constant-Pain.
When he was home at Green Acres, he napped in his closed room on Saturday mornings, not admitting to himself that he did not want to hear Allison speak of his walker. With the feeble excuse that the correct words and not his warm presence was her Balm of Gilead, he also kept his door closed on her afternoon shifts.
One June Wednesday when Constantine did not expect her to be in the building, Allison was drafted to serve dinner. When he wobbled back to his room, she followed along. He deflected discussion from himself to her. Mr. Not-Right was still on hand. Together he and Allison avoided pit parties. She had re-enlisted in the McDonalds Militia for the summer. She and Austin made trips to Duluth, sometimes in her father’s car. They swam in lakes and had Sunday pizza suppers at Austin’s. She was looking forward to her senior year. Homecoming would be the first highlight, when beautiful, sexy Austin was certain to be elected Homecoming Queen. Did Constantine know how beautiful Austin was? A photograph convinced him. Constantine wanted to tell Allison she had a different beauty, something of both Hematite and strawberries, something enduring and soft which aroused fulfilling emotions in others, something representative of women of every era. Before he framed his words, they were at his door and she had more pasta to serve.
On a July Tuesday afternoon they chatted in the hallway. She was windexing. He was “moving about as ordered by younger, wiser minds.” He smiled like a lost lamb. She smiled like Bo-Peep.
What were her college plans? Moorhead State, 200 miles away, not in a big city. For some career working with people. Not counseling or law or social work. Maybe a grade school teacher, which was one only step away from being a mother, which was okay. Her counselor had suggested a business degree to work in human resources. She did not want to be a manager.
For her part she did not know what to ask him. She could see how he was. How did she mother a grandfather? The only grandfather in her life was Austin’s, but now that she thought about it, Constantine did not seem to be a grandfather. He was an uncle.
On a hot August Saturday morning Constantine was asleep on his Blues Lounge chair and ottoman when she entered. She remember the first time she met him, when his legs folded beneath him in the chair made him had look like an angry cobra. Now he looked like a garter snake flattened on the highway. When she wheeled the vacuum near him, he awoke and smiled up at her. She wanted to touch his shoulder.
“Hello, Cinderella.” His smile showed his pleasure at seeing her.
Allison parabola-ed her eyebrow. “How are you?”
“Soft of bone, heart, and mind. I am not even Taconite. I am overburden. You look different, as if a glass slipper is about to find you.”
She smiled her curiosity at his observation. “A Prince Charming for me?”
“ . . . no. That implies a secondary role, a commoner queen to his royalty. You are not common. Your parents do not see your worth . . . but perhaps you are beginning to.”
Her smile served as her nod of agreement.
“Senior year beckons, not to a girl but to a woman You will thrive . . . you have changed in some other way.”
“I asked my parents to stop drinking so much. My father said he’d try. My mother said she doesn’t hardly drink. We now have a dinner together every Monday night. We don’t really have very much to say to each other. Maybe, you know, we’ll get better at it . . . my mother says soon she will start making the dinners.”
She told it as an objective narrative, like a clinical report in a never-to-be-read file. It was the adult sadness that was new about her. Constantine had no answer but to take her hand and squeeze it.
She smiled in resolve and went about her vacuuming. When she moved onto dusting, he was standing and watching. When she gave him a confident smile, he said, “I was wrong . . . you will escape. I came back and found home, once I was willing. Someday, somewhere you will build a home. I see it in your smile.”
The Present Tense
On the last Wednesday in September the school elects Allison Homecoming Queen, a decision that pleases almost everyone, with one notable exception.
The next day when Allison enters Green Acres, Heather Gorse calls her into the office for a brief chat, after which Allison hangs up her jacket, hooks her hair behind her perfect ears, gives her smile a bullpen session, and marches herself down the blue hallway. The receptionist watches her pass and wonders how she could have been chosen queen—no makeup or earrings, and that hair!
“Why are you cutting up ties?” Allison says as she enters room 329, not after she enters, which tells Constantine she has been sent.
Holding a pair of scissors in one hand and a tie in the other, he is sitting on his bed, which is covered in neckties. Muffin lies at his feet. “Here she is, her royal highness, without benefit of glass slipper or a Prince Charming.” They stare each other down for many seconds. “Madam Gorse told you I am cutting up my ties; she must also have told you about my impending move. Did your parents make it to the coronation?”
“No. But no one expected me to win.”
“Certainly not your pretty friend. What’s her name?”
“Austin.” She frowns.
“And she was jealous?”
“Will she get over it?”
“ . . . yes . . . eventually. It should have been her. Everybody has assumed that, like, forever. She is sooo pretty.” She smiles a wan smile.
“Did she say anything unkind?”
“Will you get over it?”
“Yes. Already have.”
“Do you regret being chosen?”
“In some ways . . . ‘specially if we’re not friends any more. But it makes me feel good. I think I’d have felt this good if Austin had been chosen . . . because, well, we both expected it. Mr. Corcoran called me the Queen Mother today.” She smiles in quiet amusement.
Holding the scissors open across a tie, he waits for her to continue.
“Most girls change best friends every year or so. Austin and me haven’t. It’s always been us. She said that I mothered my way to being elected.”
She smiles in mischief. “I guess I did.”
“You have been appreciated for what you are, for what you do for people. Beauty comes in many guises. Never doubt your beauty or that smile.”
She smiles a thoughtful smile. “I’ll try . . . “ she parabolas her eyebrow. “Now, why are you cutting up all those ties?”
He smiles in mischief. “Because I cannot get to McDonalds.”
She smiles in happy confusion. “Do you want me to drive you?”
“And tote all these ties over there? Maybe we should haul them to an abandoned ore pit and dump them in.”
She puckers her brow.
“With this new phase in my life I am ridding myself of all but a few clothes. I thought about keeping the ties and each day wearing one and throwing it away. But my hands are . . . not deft enough to do a proper knot.”
“You could give them to the charity shop.”
“The era of neckties is passing. The Taconite Era is more . . . relaxed. So be it. How many ties hang in dust in second-hand stores?”
“Why cut then up?”
“Not all of them. Only a representative few. This pile is the archaeology of ties from the fifties to the present. We should call it a sartorial archaeology.”
With his scissors still open over the uncut tie, he watches Allison rummage through the pile. She picks out three wide ties with splashy patterns and vibrant colors. As she holds them up, her smiles beams her teasing mockery.
“It was the seventies. What can I say? One of those was given to me by my sister, who told me I needed to be spiffed up.”
“Who gave you the other two? Or did you buy them?”
“I never bought a tie in my life!”
She dangles the ties. “Who gave them to you?”
“A regret of whom I do not speak. Hand me the ties.”
“No! These are mine.” She laughs. “But why cut up ties?”
“In life we hop from milestone to milestone and transition to transition. I think each milestone or transition should have its own ritual. Lots of cultures have or had rituals for those points in life. The earth is replete with the sheddings and offerings of ancient cultures. Even here in the Arrowhead. I have my own rituals, private little ceremonies. As a man ages, many ties are severed. You see, it’s all symbolism. After this transition I have only one transition left to make, of which I have no fear. The priest will do that ritual.”
“What does McDonalds have to do with it?”
“As well as being America’s gastronomic midden, McDonalds is at times my personal midden.”
M-I-D-D-E-N. You will have to look that one up. I have reached a transition. You have reached a milestone. I think you reached a transition point in the summer. Homecoming imitates ceremonies from medieval rituals. You were crowned. Tomorrow night you will attend the modern form of a jousting tournament, which we call football. Saturday will be your royal ball.”
Holding her three ties, Allison stands in thought. Her eyes brim with tears, the first time he has seen her cry. “Do you weep for Austin?”
“No . . .you are cutting your ties to me.” She smiles a peaceful and sad smile.
“Yes, that I am. All my other ties, human, not cloth, the few remaining, will follow me to the nursing home. You have a full life ahead of you. This year will be one of your best years, if you make it so, and you will. For a couple hours I will sit here cutting up some ties and thinking of transitions and milestones gone by, some in peace, some in joy, a few in regret. My nieces will deal with my cloth ties, whole and severed. You will walk away with those three most scandalously garish ties. One day you will find them in a box in the back of a closet. Maybe you will remember why you have kept them. Maybe not. You will add them to a midden somewhere else.”
She wipes her tears of the sleeve of her sweat shirt. “I would have come to visit you in the nursing home.”
“Yes, you would have, for awhile. It would have been awkward and hard on both of us. We would not have known what to say. It will be a good year for you. Let me not disrupt it. Go on now. I will be transitioned tomorrow.”
He cuts the tie in half and hands her the two pieces.
She wipes her tears on one piece of the tie and hands it back to him.
He looks down at the tear marks.
When he looks up, she is gone.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017