Read 29 Online

Authors: Adena Halpern

Tags: #Fiction, #General

29 (8 page)

Barbara got back on with Frida. “Do you think I should call her land phone, too?”

“Well . . .” Frida thought about all the times her children seemed upset that she called too much. “Maybe it’s best to leave it with just the one message.”

“You’re right.”

“So what are we going to do now?” Frida asked.

“What are we going to do?” Barbara repeated tersely. “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. I’m coming down there, and we’re going to find Mom and Lucy and this strange woman with the cakes and we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

Frida got worried again. To make Barbara drive all the way from the suburbs with the way gas prices were seemed crazy. Maybe Frida was making too much of it and calling Barbara had been a big mistake. Maybe Ellie was just running some errands. Maybe Lucy had a very good reason for lying. Frida heavily regretted getting involved.

“Now, Barbara, why don’t we give it an hour or two? Maybe
Ellie went to run some errands. Maybe she
was
planning to have lunch with one of us today.”

“She lied to both of us. Lucy lied to both of us. You know they’re up to something, and I don’t like it, given Mom’s condition.”

“Is there something wrong with your mother?” Frida grabbed her chest.

“Yes! My mother is seventy-five years old and she’s all alone in the world and living in that big city. She can’t take care of herself!”

Frida knew this wasn’t true, and she knew that Ellie hated it whenever Barbara said anything like that. Still, she reminded herself,
Never make Barbara mad.

“So what do you propose we do?” Frida asked.

“Here’s exactly what we’re going to do. First, Frida, you wait at Mom’s apartment.”

“Oh, I can’t do that. I don’t feel right being at your mother’s apartment when she isn’t there.”

“Frida, how are we going to know if Mom comes back?”

“Well, okay.”

“I’m grabbing my keys, and I’ll be downtown in thirty minutes at the most.”

“Got it,” Frida said, wondering if she should write this down.

“In the meantime, should Lucy or Ellie call, or if Ellie comes home, I will have my cell phone. You have my cell phone number, right?”

“I’ll take it down. Are you sure you should be taking a telephone call in the car, though, while you’re driving on the expressway?”

“It’s the twenty-first century, Aunt Frida. People have adapted to doing two things at the same time.”

“Oh, I didn’t know.”

“Now here’s the number. Do you have a pen?”

Frida rushed to the kitchen to grab the pad and paper she kept by the phone. “I got it, Barbara.” Her hand was shaking as she put pen to paper.

“Okay, it’s 5-5-5-2-5-4-2. Can you read that back to me?”

“It’s 5-5-5-2-5-6-2.”

“No, it’s 4-2.”

“555-2452.”

“No, 555-2542!”

“Oh, 4-2!”

“Now read it back to me.”

“The number is 555-2442.”

“Frida! Are you going deaf?”

“Just say it slowly, one more time,” Frida pleaded.

“555-2542. 555-2542. 555-2542, got it?”

“Yes. 555-2542.”

“Good.” Barbara sighed.

“And do I dial a one first?”

“Yes, and then the area code, which is 6-1-0.”

“Oh, okay. So let me just read that back one more time: 1-610-555-2542.”

“Finally, yes, Frida.” Barbara sighed again. “Now, leave your apartment right now and go down to Mom’s.”

“I’ll do it.”

“I’ll see you in a little bit.”

“I’ll be waiting. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.”

Frida hung up the phone and looked around the room, wondering what to do next. A few moments on the phone with Barbara was more than she could ever handle. Far be it from Frida to say anything, but how could Ellie deal with her daughter on a day-to-day basis? Ellie was so calm and cool. How did she get a daughter like Barbara?

As Frida went into her bedroom to change into something more suitable to wait in Ellie’s apartment, something occurred to her. Frida thought of herself as being a calm, cool person, just like Ellie. Sure, Frida worried sometimes, but who didn’t? Barbara was just like Frida’s mother all those years ago when she’d wake her up sounding like a lunatic. Why didn’t she ever see that before?

“Maybe that kind of thing skips a generation,” she said out loud to herself.

Normally, Frida never put on slacks, but today was different. If she was going to wait for Ellie, who knows for how long, she should at least be comfortable. Frida had a pair of pink sweatpants that she’d bought when she and Ellie joined that gym they never went back to. Frida thought the sweats were smart and cute, because they were pink. She also put on the matching pink sweat jacket. She went into her closet and found the sneakers she’d worn only that one day at the gym. She noticed immediately how much more comfortable they were than her regular orthopedic shoes. Maybe she’d start wearing them more often. Maybe she’d wear the entire outfit more often.

Suddenly her phone rang and she rushed to answer it. Maybe it was Ellie.

“Hello?” Frida answered.

“YOU HAVEN’T LEFT YET?” a high-pitched nasal roar came over the line.

“I know, I’m sorry. I’m going down now.”

“Call me when you get down to Mom’s.”

“I will.”

Frida was so startled by Barbara’s call that she decided to leave her morning clothes sitting on the bed where she’d left them. This never happened—Frida was always neat as a pin. But there was absolutely no time to fold them up and put them away. What if Barbara called back? She walked as fast as she could out of her bedroom and toward the door of her apartment.

The phone rang again, stopping Frida in her tracks.

What if it was Barbara, and this was another test? She couldn’t take it. This was one of those times she wished she had an answering machine. The answering machine her son bought her some years ago was still in its box, stored in the back of her closet. She could never figure out how to work it.

She hurried to the front door, opened it, and slammed it shut after her, making sure it was locked from the inside. She jiggled the door handle like she always did for a good fifteen seconds just to make sure it was locked. The phone continued to ring. But there was always time to check to see that the door was locked—even Barbara could understand that.

When she was finally content with the locked door, she scurried down the hallway to the elevator.

That’s when a curling feeling went straight through Frida’s heart.

Frida realized that she left her purse
and
Barbara’s cell
number
and
her keys
and
the keys to Ellie’s apartment inside her apartment.

As the elevator door opened, she found she couldn’t move from where she was standing in the hallway. She watched as the elevator door closed without her inside. She continued to stand in the empty hallway, unable to think of what to do next. The only sound that could be heard was the telephone ringing on and on from inside Frida’s apartment.

a woman of a certain age

I’ll never forget the first time I felt discriminated against because of my age.

I had gone to get a facial at a chic spa that I had read about in
Philadelphia
magazine when I first moved into the city. I’m not going to tell you the name of it or where it is, though. I don’t want them to lose any business because of my story. It’s not that the spa treated me shabbily; on the contrary, they couldn’t have been nicer. That was the problem. From the second I walked into the place, I could tell that they didn’t usually deal with people from my age group. Personally, I was a little put off by the streamlined design of the place, anyway. Are masculine chrome walls and hard marble floors really soothing? Also, this awful flute music played constantly. When the aesthetician finished my $180 oxygen facial, she left the room and told me to “breathe in the aromatic scents” while concentrating on that flute music. I wanted to tear my eyes out after a minute, the aromatic scents smelled like the mentholatum I used to rub on Barbara’s chest when she was home from school with a cold. Also, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found fountains to be a tranquil
sound in the least. All they do is make me have to pee. But I’m getting off the track here. (Sorry, I do that sometimes. Howard always made a comment whenever I did that.)

As I was saying, it wasn’t that the people at the spa were just nice to me. They were more than nice. They were
bend-over-backwards
nice. From the second I walked up to the desk, the woman behind the chrome counter spoke louder than I know her normal volume level really was. Believe me, no one shouts or enunciates like this woman did. The sound of her voice was deafening as she told me about the benefits of an apricot body scrub (I could tell that she knew as well as I did that I never would have taken off my clothes and gotten that done). Then, anything I said to the aesthetician, she laughed a little more than she should have. If I complained just a tiny bit about the way she was poking at my pores, she apologized profusely. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have done this with any other customer; I’m just saying that she was pouring on the charm a bit more because she’d never before performed a facial on a seventy-something woman. And then, once I had paid and was getting ready to leave, I realized that I really had to pee from the aforementioned sound of that so-called
soothing
fountain dripping water on the stones. Both the aesthetician and the receptionist were standing there and I said, “Would you mind showing me where the powder room is?”

“The powder room?”
the receptionist shouted, still thinking I was deaf. It was getting to the point where I wondered if I should just be rude and correct her. But any way I could have said it would have sounded rude, and frankly, I was already intimidated enough.

“She means the bathroom, the ladies’ room.” The aesthetician chuckled as if I had been speaking a foreign language, which I was: the language from the 1950s. Okay, I know the term
powder room
might be dated, but I still call it that. Calling it a
bathroom
makes it sound like a dirty stall at a gas station. So shoot me for trying to sound polite.

But I’m getting off the track again. Apologies.

Anyway, here’s what I’m getting at: the aesthetician said she would gladly show me where the powder room was, so we walked back into the spa.

Well, she took me into the locker room. There were two doors for bathrooms. One door had no sign. The other door had a handicapped symbol on it. At first she opened the door with no sign on it.

“Here,” she said, opening the door. Then she paused. She shut the door to that bathroom and opened up the other door. “Actually, you’ll probably want to use this one.”

I always like to use the handicap stall because it’s roomier, don’t you? Still, to this day, I know she thought I
should
have gone in that stall because I was old. It was the kindness in her voice that tipped me off, that temperate way that people talk to children and the elderly.

As lovely as she was, she pitied me for my age, and it hurt. I left that spa and never went back. I couldn’t even go down that street for a while. I got a little paranoid thinking that they might have laughed at me after I left. Why would an old wrinkled prune (well, an old wrinkled prune with a face-lift, Botox, and Restylane) like me want a facial? It’s a shame, too. I really enjoyed the facial.

From then on I went back to my facialist in the suburbs. It’s lovely there. They’ve got comfy couches and powder-pink walls and I’ve known Sheila, the facialist, for years. I never even tried to get another hairdresser in the city. There are a couple of salons down the street from my apartment, but they look too overdone for me. I looked into the window of a place one time when I thought that maybe I’d just get a blowout. They don’t even sit you in normal hairdresser’s chairs. They sit you on stools! Can you imagine? Of course no one over the age of fifty goes in there. Whose back could stand sitting on that stool for so long?

“I think it should be cut shaggy, with lots of layers,” Lucy commented as we left my apartment building.

“Oh, Lucy, I don’t want to do anything too crazy.” I pulled my compact umbrella out of my tote in preparation to walk on such a sunny day.

“Gram,” Lucy said and laughed, staring at the umbrella, “come on, do you really need the old-lady umbrella today? You’re wearing your Ellie Jerome dress! No one will be able to see you behind this big ugly umbrella.”

“You’re right, Ms. Smarty Pants.” I laughed and handed it to her. “I don’t need it today, but you do! It’s about time that you start taking care of your skin. Trust me, Lucy, you will thank me when you’re old. Come to think of it, though, since I’m only going to be this way for a day, I’m going to sit in the sun like I haven’t done in years. Lucy, add that to the list of things to do today.”

Lucy took out the list we’d made. “Do you want to schedule the sun time before your bikini wax or after you try on thongs?”

“After we try on thongs. My tush hasn’t seen the sun in fifty
years, so who knows?” I nudged her, laughing, but she didn’t join in.

“Do you want to be arrested, too? That’s another thing you’ve never done.”

“Spoilsport.” I smiled at her as she locked her arm in mine.

As we looked up, we saw Hershel Neal coming toward us.

“Oh, crap, here comes Hershel,” I whispered to Lucy.

“Hi, Lucy,” he said and held out his hand to her.

“Hi, Mr. Neal. How are you today?” she said, extending her hand to him. He took her hand in his and clasped it tenderly.

“Very good. How was your grandmother’s birthday?”

“It was a really nice night.” She turned to me. “Hershel, this is my cousin Ellie, uh, Michele, uh, Ellie Michele, from Chicago.”

“Of course you are!” He smiled then took my hand and clasped it. “You two could be twins. Very nice to meet you. Ellie Michele—that’s an interesting name. I guess you were named for your grandmother?”

“Yes.” I smiled, but that was all I said. I couldn’t stand him when I was old; he was the last person I wanted to talk to when I was young.

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