Authors: Hilma Wolitzer
The carton in my closet held only the silver clock, still ticking; the framed photograph of my mother and me; and the medical book with its transparent overlays. What would I bring to Parksie the following week? The photo was out, so it was a toss-up between the book and the clock. And I finally chose the clock because it was a more substantial and valuable object—it came from Georg Jensen—and it seemed to better represent the man Parksie knew, with the grandeur of its silver casing, the austere face, and that faint but determined pulse. My decision was also selfish, because I loved the book, with its monogrammed caduceus book-plate and those layered pages that could be peeled back, one at a time, to reveal the heart of the matter.
The tram ride to Roosevelt Island, that swift glide over the river between bridges and buildings, is one of the lesser-sung charms of the city, although Violet referred to the island itself as a kind of middle-class penal colony. She was such a cynic, but on the bus from the tram to Parksie’s house, I began to see what she meant. I was struck by the institutional look of the high-rises, how generically alike the storefronts were. And the streets were practically empty; where were all the people? Even the tram and the bus had only a few other passengers.
Yet this was a safe and comfortable place for Parksie to live during this late stage of her life. The rents are lower than in Manhattan, and everything she needed—market, pharmacy, church, laundry, library—was within walking distance, or only a five-minute bus ride away.
I had put the clock in a gift box and wrapped it with silver paper and matching cord, and I’d made a detour to Payard for some pastries on my way to the tram. Parksie lived on the twentieth floor of her building. Her one-bedroom apartment was rather small, but she had only a slightly obstructed water view, and a clear view of a pretty little park. The furnishings reminded me of a bed-and-breakfast Ev and I had once stayed at in Vermont. This place was just as persistently busy and cheerful, with Laura Ashley floral patterns everywhere, creating an illusion of eternal spring, and lots of pillows and dishes of potpourri. An oversized ledge in the living room that might have been a great window seat was devoted to a display of framed photos of Parksie’s family and a few of her departed cats. Two living tabbies blinked indifferently at me from a padded basket nearby.
She’d made shrimp salad and deviled eggs for our lunch—the fluted eggs must have been squeezed through a pastry tube—and the dining table, in an L-shaped extension of the living room, had been set with enormous care. Pristine place mats, shining silverware. The gold-rimmed plates were clearly from her good china, and the white linen napkins, folded into peaks, resembled the old-fashioned nurses’ caps Parksie once wore. She was in mufti today, dressed up in a boxy, powder-blue pantsuit with matching eye shadow. I was touched by all the preparations she’d made for my visit, and by the exuberance of her greeting. “You’re here!” she cried, opening her arms to enfold me, as if I’d just rowed myself across the river.
During lunch we chatted about Suzy’s engagement and the various exploits of Parksie’s numerous nieces and nephews. This one was in medical school, that one was a computer whiz. They lived in Idaho, Alaska, France! Everyone was growing up so fast, weren’t they? Where did time go? It was familiar rhetoric, but I thought she looked a little frightened when she said it. I’d considered telling her about Ev and me, but decided against it. It was a burden she could live without, and I guess I didn’t want to damage her sense of me as a successful person.
After dessert, I handed her the gift-wrapped clock, and she painstakingly unknotted the cord and undid the paper without tearing it—she would use them both again. After she opened the box and pulled the tissue apart to reveal the clock, a gasp escaped her. Then the room grew so still, I could hear the clock’s steady ticking from my seat across the table.
This is where time goes,
it seemed to say. “Alice!” she exclaimed. “Oh, but I couldn’t . . .”
“Of course you can,” I said. “Why, it was something you saw every day.”
“But shouldn’t it stay in the family? Wouldn’t Suzy and her fiancé like to have it? Or one of the boys?”
“No, they wouldn’t. It’s yours, I want you to have it. And I’m sure my father would want you to have it, too.” I could see her waiting, poised to receive his signal to approach, in the office, at the nursing home.
“Thank you, dear,” she said. “This means a great deal to me.” She’d begun scanning the room, trying to settle on a place to put the clock. There was no natural spot for it, no desk or mantelpiece, and every tabletop was already crowded with knickknacks. She stood, finally, and walked to the windowsill photo gallery, where she moved a few frames from the center to each side, and settled the clock in the space she’d made. “There,” she said, with satisfaction, and stepped back to admire it.
“Yes, perfect,” I agreed, envisioning the dark mahogany gleam of my father’s desk. I got up and began to clear the dishes.
Parksie went to the sofa and sat down, patting the cushion beside her. “Come,” she said. “Just leave those, I’d much rather visit with you.”
“Me, too,” I admitted. I sank into my designated seat and said, “This is so cozy. And I loved the tram—those little red seats—it was like an elegant amusement park ride.”
“And so convenient,” Parksie said. “Look how it’s brought you here to me.”
Of course that made me feel guilty; why hadn’t I ever come to see her before? And I was reminded of the specific purpose of this visit. “Do you know who I’ve been thinking about lately?” I said. “Miss Snow.”
She was startled. “Diana?” she said.
I’d forgotten her first name, that she’d even
a first name. Diana— it was imbued now with an aura of royalty and tragedy. “Was she as pretty as I remember?”
“Oh, yes. But she was a type. Cool, you know, with that blond pageboy, that pale, pale skin. And she could have used a few extra pounds on her bones.”
“Her last name certainly fit, though, didn’t it?” I glanced around at the flowers and flounces in an effort to get that flurry of whiteness out of my head.
“When she got married, she became Diana Loach,” Parksie said.
“Really? That’s not quite as evocative, is it? I’ve often wondered what became of her.” I had thought of Miss Snow, occasionally, over the years, but she was fixed in my mind as I’d once known her. I was really unable to imagine her growing older, and in a domestic setting. “Do you know where she is now, what she’s doing?”
“I’m afraid not. We haven’t been in touch for years. They moved to Pennsylvania before the children were born. She had three of them, just like you. Walter’s, her husband’s, firm relocated, you know. They manufactured paper cartons. She sent announcements: new address, babies’ births, that sort of thing. Family photographs at Christmas. And I always wrote back.” She paused. “But you know how it is, Alice, everyone’s busy and it’s hard to keep track of people.” A polite way of saying she’d been dropped. “What made you think of her?” Parksie asked. “Oh, of course, your father’s death. We should have tried to notify her . . .” She trailed off, looking somber and preoccupied.
“Well, yes, perhaps,” I said, patting her hand. “But I was thinking about her even before that, going over those times Mother and I came to the hospital to meet Daddy. While we waited for him, I would sit at your desk or at Miss Snow’s, drawing and coloring, do you remember?”
“Of course I do,” Parksie said. “How could I forget? I used to hang some of your little pictures in my office.” Her expression was dreamy and nostalgic, and her head bobbed, as if she were saying,
Yes, yes, I remember everything.
Dear Parksie. She was the one I loved, even as I’d idolized Miss Snow.
“But what was she like, Miss Snow?” I asked. “I mean, personally?”
“She was an excellent secretary, as I recall. Extremely accurate, and she typed fifty-five words a minute.”
What an odd detail to have held all these years, and it certainly wasn’t the sort of information I was fishing for. I wanted to know if she was aggressive, vain, passionate, reckless. If she had a sense of humor, or of fairness, and if other women liked her, or just the men. Yet I could almost hear Miss Snow’s fingernails tapping briskly on her metal typewriter keys, and see the way each page in her steno pad was divided neatly down the middle by a narrow red line. Then I thought of the “letter” my father had scrawled that day in the nursing home. “Darling,” he’d written, clearly, before making all those frantic, senseless markings. Weren’t they something like the mysterious squiggles and strikes, the symbols of Miss Snow’s shorthand?
Parksie’s eyes were closed. She might have been reminiscing, too, or maybe she’d just dozed off.
“Parksie, listen,” I said. “There’s something I want to ask you.”
Her eyes flew open, like a doll’s. “What?” she asked.
“I don’t know how to say this,” I said.
One of the cats uncoiled itself from the basket at that moment and sprang onto Parksie’s lap. “Oh, Cynthia,” she said, “you want to join the conversation,” and she ran her hand along the purring engine of the cat’s throat.
I was grateful for the distraction, but very soon Parksie was looking at me again, with curiosity and concern. Was I only imagining something else, a flicker of alarm? “It’s about Miss Snow,” I said.
She resumed stroking the cat. “Oh. What about her, dear?”
“I have this one disturbing memory of her. It’s almost like a dream.”
Parksie sat forward and the cat spilled off her lap. “Yes?” she said.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “This is pretty awful,” I said. “And I want you to understand why I’m telling you about it. It’s not to gossip or to blacken anyone’s name. It’s just that I’ve been feeling troubled lately, and I wasn’t sure why until I remembered something that happened a very long time ago. Or at least I
I remember it. Anyway, I have to know now, just for my own peace of mind, and I hoped that you might be able to help me out.”
“What in the world are you talking about, Alice?” Parksie said.
“Okay, here goes. One day, when I was about ten, I opened the door to my father’s office at the hospital, to his consultation room, and they were in there.”
“Who was?” she said.
“My father and Miss Snow. Diana,” I said, trying it out.
Parksie’s hand was pressed against her own throat. She might have been measuring the pulse leaping there. “Was she taking dictation?” she asked, but she didn’t seem to have much confidence in her question.
“No. She was lying across my father’s desk, and he was lying on top of her.”
“That’s impossible!” Parksie cried. Her hand dropped beside her on the sofa cushion with a little thud.
“That’s what I thought at first, too,” I said. “But now I can’t get that picture out of my mind. He was kissing her neck; his leg was between hers. There’s no question about what they were doing.”
I’d seen it as a struggle then, but her arms were wound around his back, not pushing against his chest to free herself. I’d knocked at the other door, but they couldn’t have heard me over the uproar of their own breathing. “It was so strange, it was completely white in there, like a blizzard,” I said.
Parksie groaned, and I let my gaze wander toward the window across the room, feeling irritable, and with a sudden longing for the real, clamorous life of the city. What was
with her? She was what my father used to call, with amused derision, a “maiden lady,” but she was also a trained nurse, for God’s sake. When I finally looked back at her, her eyes were fixed on me.
Then I was in that doorway again, on the threshold of everything. My father battered against Miss Snow, whose white-stockinged legs opened to let him in, while her plump white arms clutched at his back. But why was Miss Snow wearing white stockings? She wouldn’t—her hosiery was always sheer, and in that flesh-toned shade they still call Nude. And I saw that the woman on the desk was the blizzard herself, dressed entirely in white—even her shoes and her little winged cap—like a bride, a vision, a nurse. She turned her head then because
heard me at the door, even if he hadn’t, and her kohl-rimmed, blue-shadowed eyes were the same eyes that were looking at me now, with the same consuming horror and despair.
How had I have ever confused her with Miss Snow? I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. I could have easily given my entire lunch up right then: shrimp salad, deviled egg, pastry, coffee. And I would have taken back everything I’d said, in return, rewound the entire day. Oh, Alice, think before you speak.
Parksie hadn’t moved. Even when one of the cats leapt onto the sofa to investigate, nudging its head against her arm, she stayed as still as stone. What if she’d had a stroke, died? In some ways, this was worse than when I’d told my mother. At least I was a child then,
child, as Dr. Stern had pointed out. Now, here, I was simply an emissary from the past, of the dead. I glanced across the room at the silver clock, some cruel jokester’s version of the gold watch given for a lifetime of service.
I swallowed a few times and wet my lips before I began my retreat. “I guess you never knew anything about it,” I said. “Or maybe it
just my imagination. You know how children are, and Daddy used to always say I let mine run away with me. And it doesn’t really matter in the long run, does it? I mean, he’s dead—and Mother, too—and Miss Snow, well, she’s Mrs. Loach now, isn’t she, and who knows what’s happened to her in all this time.” I was finally able to shut up, to simply sit there and listen for Parksie’s breathing.
When I could detect it again, it sounded shallow and rapid. “Look at the time,” I said, without consulting my watch or that relentless clock. “The tram leaves on the quarter hour, right? I’d better be going, I have so much to do.” Drink hemlock, I thought, put my head in the oven, jump off a bridge.
Parksie stood up, too, and I linked arms with her on the way to the door. “What a lovely lunch that was,” I said. “But I didn’t mean to upset you with my story.”
“Oh, no, dear,” Parksie managed to say.
“Well, good, then,” I said. “Because that was all ages ago, anyway.”
“Yes,” Parksie said.
I held her longer than I should have, trying to gauge whether she was really hugging me back or simply tolerating my embrace, and, at the same time, testing the resiliency of my affection for her. It felt so good being in her arms, I knew that my feelings, at least, were still intact. All of it
happened ages ago, in what seemed right then like another lifetime. “Let’s you and I never lose touch,” I said. My voice was as plaintive as it had been when I’d asked my mother to come and lie down on my bed with me.
“Of course not,” Parksie replied. But maybe that only meant birthday cards and a photograph at Christmas of the cats curled in their basket.