Commentary Magazine


Oral History A Story

Rose Markowitz volunteers once a week for the Venice Oral History project. They send her a girl, Alma, on Mondays and Rose tells her the details of her life. It can be tedious but it is important that it be done. “The irony is not lost on me,” she tells her son Edward when he calls.

She is an attractive girl, though she walks around in rags. They all wear them, of course. Rose sees them advertised in the catalogues. She gets them all. Ninety-nine percent schlock for twice the money. The bargains, so-called, are the worst. You could take the prices, but for that merchandise! Rose sits and waits every week and she can never predict what Alma will wear. Never the same rags twice; she doesn’t iron. A divorcee, of course, is what she is. She told Rose herself. Last time she wore earrings made out of scrap metal. She has two holes pierced in each ear. But really, apart from that and her hair, she would be a nice-looking girl. No raving beauty, but she has feminine hands, and Rose is very particular about hands.

It was the first thing Rose disliked about her own Ed’s wife. Even in the wedding pictures she had the most ungainly, thick-fingered hands. The photographs are all away in boxes except for the pair on the secretary. Those were the boys in their angelic days. Two and five. She took out the old pictures of the family for the research project The other things left from the old house are the sofa and the Chinese carpet, green. That was the first thing she bought when she worked in Macy’s Ladies’ Dresses. The second thing was the beveled-glass mirror which broke. The mounting was loose and it fell one night with such a smash Rose was trembling for a week. The dining-room table and the six chairs Ed forced her to leave behind because in Venice she got a studio at the senior citizens’ residence. But the nesting Chinese tables came as a set with the wing chair and the cloisonné lamps. Rose’s other son Henry wanted them, but Rose took them back when he moved to England. He uprooted her from Flatbush so he could leave her alone in California. He moved to England within three years of her coming and she told him when he left her he wasn’t taking the lamps back there. Rose put them on the chifferobe beside the bed. For reading she bought a seventy-watt lamp.

Alma saunters in with her hair windblown. “Sit, sit,” Rose urges, and she sinks down, folders denting cushions. It annoys and fascinates Rose, the way she flings herself about. If you asked her she would tell you Alma doesn’t know what manners are. But Rose enjoys disapproving of her. She always loved an impossible child. Even now that Henry’s grown and only impossible, he is her favorite.

The girl shuffles the files about and rewinds something in the tape recorder before she even asks “How are you?”

Rose considers the question. “I feel fragile. And you?”

“Great” They look at each other for a moment Wrinkled again, Rose observes mildly. She turns down the volume on the clock-radio, miniaturizing an Ives symphony. Alma watches, squinting. The white afternoon sun still bums in her eyes, blinding her to the shadowy contours of the apartment.

“You look ill, dear.” Rose says. “You look flushed.”

“Sunburn. Not to worry.”

“I was always so very fair,” says Rose.

Alma breaks in. “At our last session, you spoke about your childhood. Maybe we can pick up from there. Back before World War I. How did you manage to survive, domestically, under the great oppression?”

Rose settles back in her chair, revealing the knee bands of her tan stockings. “I’ll tell you about the Depression. That was when we lived in the Brooklyn house. Thank God we had the house.” She waves her hand mystically over the maze of furniture. The secretary especially was an agony to move. They had to take out the louvers and hoist it through the window. Rose had a time of it She was wringing her hands waiting for it to come through and she was certain the men wouldn’t see the finials on the top.

“Before the Depression,” Alma urges, “I want to talk about prewar oppression. How did your mother bear up? Where did you live?”

“Well, the war was dirty and dangerous. I would never go back to Vienna. Never, never. I was sent to England and became very English. All I can remember of Vienna is filth.”

Alma leans forward. “Can you be more specific? This is very important for the project.”

“Alma,” Rose murmurs, “I said I would help you, but some things should be forgotten.”

“Try to remember. You’re like a witness to those times—to that suffering.”

“Oh, nonsense,” Rose scoffs. Even so, she smiles, touched by Alma’s interest in her life. “I need your cooperation.”

“Well,” Rose says sweetly, “we’ll make something up, dear. The university will never know.”

“Mrs. Markowitz!” There is something in Rose that baffles Alma. Something blithe and cunningly oblivious. She tries again. “All right, I’d like to rephrase my first question in a less technical way. When I speak of the oppression, here’s what I mean. As a member of the European, rising bourgeoisie and as a woman, did you feel that your ambition was stifled in Vienna?”

“I was a little girl!” Rose protests. “This is before the first war, remember. Don’t make me out a completely desiccated old fool. Besides, we were Jewish. That’s why we came here.”

“So you were really part of the Jewish intellectual elite. Is that a good description of the family?”

“I had six brothers,” Rose says thoughtfully. “Some were smart, some weren’t Joseph, yes. Joel, yes.” She ticks them off on her fingers. “Saul, no. Mendel, yes. Nachum—died too young. Chaim, smart? Definitely not—may he rest in peace. He had a heart of gold. Maybe half the family was elite, the rest, not”

“Well, I meant economically. Anyway, let’s move on.”

“Economically, we had the house,” Rose supplies. “That was what saved die family.”

“In Vienna?”

“No, here. In America. The city. Brooklyn. I was the baby. They sent me to Hunter College, but fortunately I married Samuel halfway through. A horrendous place. You see, I never knew any mathematics. Couldn’t add two numbers together. It was because of the way I was brought up.”

“Ah,” breathes Alma. “As a woman, you were socialized to be afraid of numbers.”

“Well, they tried to teach me, but they gave up because I was so stupid.”

“You thought you were stupid?”

“No. Artistic. I sewed dresses. My life goal was to go on a transatlantic cruise. Which I did. Several times.”

“So you aspired to the upper classes,” Alma concludes.

“Oh, we were upper class. My brother was a teacher. We went to college. My sister-in-law painted, played the piano. We spoke German and French. We were very cultured people. Our home in Vienna was a beautiful work of art In Brooklyn we lived even better.”

“Whoa,” cries Alma. “In my notes from last session you said you only knew poverty and hunger.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“You’ve changed your mind since last week?”

Rose lifts her chin. “Are you saying I can’t remember what I said a week ago?”

“No,” Alma groans, “I’m trying to compile a consistent record.”

“I am consistent”

“Well, which is the truth?” Alma demands. “Were you poor and ignorant or were you cultured?”

Rose folds her hands. “We were cultured at heart”

_____________

 

Starting the car, Alma glares at the Venice Vista condominiums, their avocado-green walls and cement paths under date palms. Every week Rose changes her mind about when she left Vienna. They all have their tricks, of course, the women of Venice and Mar Vista, the retired piano teacher in the Valley. But the others trail their gambits more predictably: Eileen with her great-grandchildren, Simone and her long recipes. Rose is more subtle than this, more eloquently inconsistent

She drives past Venice Beach and thinks how the old ladies on park benches used to inspire her. She went to see Venice People while still in Romance languages at Berkeley and it struck her then that this was what she wanted. She was tired of insinuating meaning from fiction. She needed to read lives, not texts. She needed to hear real voices. Her adviser tried to talk her out of switching programs. “You’re doing brilliant work here!” Professor Garvey protested. “You’ll write a publishable dissertation.” But Alma had decided by this time that he was a fatuous, exploitative swine. So she left Garvey and his department and now field work replaces MLA computer searches. People replace books. Her mother is distressed by all this. She is distressed by Alma’s graduate work in general. She pleads softly on the telephone from Palos Verdes, “Alma, why do you drive yourself like this? You don’t have to go to school all over again. You’re thirty-one years old and if you don’t like your program you can just leave. There’s no shame in that Or take a year off and see how you feel.”

“What would I do with a year off?” Alma demanded after one such speech.

“You don’t need to do anything,” her mother answered. “You could just come home and rest. Or we could travel together, just the two of us. You don’t take care of yourself working like this.” She didn’t say anything about Alma’s boyfriend, which was how Alma knew he was on her mind. Mom met him once and talked to him briefly but she never speaks of him, never utters his alliterative, flat Jewish name, Ron Rosenblatt.

Ignoring her mother’s offer, Alma moved to Venice and bought the Toyota. She drives across Los Angeles interviewing. But work with live characters has its own frustrations. Alma’s women never provide quite the testimony she is looking for. They record scant evidence about their time and instead fill cassettes with soap-opera reviews, reports of gastrointestinal symptoms, readings of their letters. Here again, Rose is the most dramatic, unfolding yellowed papers from her secretary, holding them close to the light as if some great historical record were at hand—all to reveal a thank-you note from her oldest brother’s bride or, in last week’s interview, a copy of her surreal letter “to the 1RS.” “My dear husband was a Maoist Please excuse the lapse in taxes.” Rose is worse than all the rest put together.

_____________

 

The apartment is almost as hot as the car. Alma’s cocker spaniel Flush sprawls, ears drooping, on the couch. The dog is recovering from a virus. At the round table Ron works under the blast of a three-speed fan. He is writing a scholarly work on the folk singer John Jacob Niles, but lately he’s been helping Alma with her data analysis. She wonders sometimes whether either project will ever get done. Though he loves gathering material, Ron has a laconic way of writing. He knows hundreds of ballads, but was already bored with writing about Niles when he and Alma met. The year before he had wanted to take his sabbatical in Appalachia and check Niles’s sources, but Alma told him it was a ridiculous waste of time and she wasn’t going to sacrifice her project for it. He grumbled for a while and wrote a chapter.

Now, Ron sits with Alma’s transcripts before him, weighted down against the narrow breeze with ashtrays and glass coasters. “Darling,” he says, “I don’t think this stuff is usable.”

Alma slams the door. “Don’t darling me.”

“Ms. Renquist,” Ron rephrases. “This data is shitty.”

“It’s not my fault!” she sinks down next to Flush. “You should see what I have to work with. The way they change their stories. Rose Markowitz doesn’t even seem to know whether she was rich or poor.”

“But I can’t see,” says Ron, “that’s the problem. I have no idea what these women are like. All I’ve got here are your interruptions. You’ve been asking all kinds of biased, leading questions.”

“I’m just trying to guide the discussion,” Alma retorts. “You want me to listen to them babble about constipation?”

“Guiding?” Ron pulls off his sweat-drenched shirt “Look at these transcripts. Every other question is about class struggle. Come on, this is supposed to be a federally funded grant. This should be very straightforward: the lives of women before and after the wars.”

“Are you telling me to sell out my methodology?” she bristles.

“Alma,” he grips her by the shoulders, “use your head. These women don’t know what you’re talking about First of all, stop trying to indoctrinate them. What does Eileen Meeker know about patriarchal power structures?”

She shakes him off. “Plenty.”

“But not by that name.”

She stamps into the kitchen. “It’s my thesis,” she calls out “It’s my idea. You think you can do a better job, you interview them.”

“Yeah, why not,” Ron growls from the other room. “Why not the interviews, too?”

“Come in here if you want to talk to me.” She pours herself a glass of Chablis and feels some remorse, partly because Ron is right; she has been interrupting too much. It’s an old habit She’s always worked to get a jump on arguments, to press her own conclusions. Even in high school Alma wouldn’t let a statement lie unchallenged. She interrogated her classmates in discussion. After class, teachers would lecture her apologetically. They gestured with exhausted hands in front of the cloudy blackboards. “I know you’re very bright, Alma. But you shouldn’t act so dogmatic.” Ron doesn’t flare up the way she does. She dances around him in their arguments and he watches, infuriating her as if he were holding her by the wrists. It’s better to back off than play his games. “Ron?” she leans in the kitchen doorway. “It’s just so hard to sit there and listen to them. I get punchy.”

“I know,” he says. “Tell you what; I’m starving. Order a pizza.”

She phones for a pizza with everything—anchovies on her half—and cannoli for dessert. They clear off the table and Alma folds her print-outs back into her rolling file cabinet. Ron complains that the apartment looks like a suite of offices, but Alma loves office furniture, the wall systems and built-in cabinets. She’s attached corner fittings to the bookcases and nested drawers under the bed; she’s installed folding tables, armless chairs, a layered printer stand, every kind of space saver. She indulges in the minimal. Ron’s sprawling reel-to-reel tape player (needed for research) and his shaggy ferns look like loose cargo next to Alma’s modules, units, nodes of furniture.

The pizza comes with double cheese, olives, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and eggplant. Ron surveys the crust for Alma’s anchovies and slices her a piece which she cuts neatly with a fork and knife. He lifts a long curling piece straight to his mouth trailing cheese. But the doorbell interrupts him. The delivery boy is back, standing in the doorway. “Can I use your phone?” he asks.

They can hear him talking in the kitchen. “Hi. It’s John. Dad there? Hi. Fine. Two more. I, uh locked the keys in the car. I’m on Elk.” A long pause and then he reappears, avoiding their eyes. Silently he walks down to wait in the parking lot.

“God,” Ron says, “how embarrassing. Poor kid. You forget what it’s like to get an earful like that”

“I don’t,” mutters Alma.

“Well,” he teases, “if you hate interviewing so much, go back to Cervantes.”

She sighs, “But I want to work with people!”

“As opposed to the rest of us?”

“Oh, you know what I mean. It’s just Rose who gets to me. The woman is driving me crazy. I’ve never seen anyone play such games. One session tears and suffering. The next week she laughs and laughs.”

“Maybe she’s senile,” Ron suggests cheerfully.

“No,” moans Alma. “She’s too damn manipulative.”

“Poor kid,” he stakes out another piece. “You’ve just never had an Aunt Rose, that’s all. You don’t have the background for old Jewish ladies. Caroling at rest homes in Palos Verdes just won’t do it”

“Very funny,” says Alma. “I did not go caroling.”

“It was a metaphor. Let me tell you, though, you’ve got to fight Rose on her own ground. She gets emotional, play on her emotions. Don’t analyze out loud, sit there and cry with her. She’ll pour out her heart”

Alma looks at him.

“Trust me.” Ron winks.

_____________

 

At the next session Alma tries. “We’ve been skipping around a lot,” she tells Rose. “So I’d like to go back to your childhood. This time I’m going to try to talk less and let you talk more. Where did you live as a child?”

Rose picks off a dead leaf from her African violet “We lived outside Vienna in a little house on the grounds of a castle. When the soldiers came, all us children and women were locked in the castle and one soldier had my mother roast them a pig! A whole pig! And then they left Can you imagine?”

“How did you feel about that?” Alma asks.

“I just told you.”

“I mean, beyond the bare facts. Emotionally. How did that make you feel? Didn’t you feel violated when the soldiers came in? Do you still dream about it?”

Rose shakes her head. “This was many years ago.”

“Yet you remember it so clearly!”

“No, actually,” says Rose, “it’s gotten very fuzzy in my mind.”

“You’re trying to forget it?”

“No, I just can’t remember it that well. Alma, I haven’t thought about this for years and years.”

Alma glares at the needlepoint bird framed on the wall. “You’re sublimating this.”

“Pardon me?”

“You’re purposely forgetting. Pushing it out of sight”

“Alma,” Rose says gently, “when you forget something you don’t try, you just—forget what happened.”

“But can’t you remember the feelings? Weren’t you frightened?”

“I suppose we were.”

“Couldn’t you have gotten killed?” Alma bursts out. “I mean, really murdered. Raped, then murdered.”

“Oh, definitely.” Rose’s voice quavers. “Sometimes when I think of the wars I could just cry.”

Alma kneels at Rose’s feet “Yes! Yes!” she urges. “Go on.”

“But I don’t think about them very much.”

What does she think about, Alma wonders, staring at Rose’s shadowed eyes. In fact, Rose is thinking about her slipcovers. She regrets that she gave them up. For forty years they covered the sofa where Alma sits. Rose brought them with her from New York when she moved into the residence, but the same day, Gladys came to introduce herself and examine Rose’s things (she was sharp as a whip to the last day, and mean) and she picked up the cover on the sofa: “Rose, what are you waiting for?” She embarrassed Rose into it She wanted them for the flea market, Rose found out later. Gladys used to visit all the residents spying for the flea markets; they gave her awards. Now Rose has to keep the jalousies closed so the cushions won’t fade.

Alma bends over her tape recorder. “Let’s move on to the family you lived with in England during the war.”

“She was a monster and became senile,” Rose declares. “When they lost their money, she went mad because they couldn’t afford plates.”

“Plates?” Alma asks wearily.

“China, porcelain. She broke something every day. She threw plates across the dining room. But he was an angel. The only one who understood me. There was also the most cherubic little boy, Eli. With golden hair. I went back to see him in 1954. He was a great big hairy man. Horrible! I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

“Upper-middle-class industrialists,” Alma mutters, writing in her notebook.

“They were very observant, that I know. We went to services every week. Alma—” Rose picks up the tape recorder—“I insist you turn off this ludicrous machine and take some cheese cake. Listen. In my day we were taught to eat. I was a size eighteen at your age.” She sees Alma writing and amends, “Well, maybe sixteen. Come. Sit, dear. Just let me get the cake out of the Frigidaire. You know, I’ve always thought Alma was a lovely name.”

“Really?” Alma looks up startled. “I hate it”

“Why?”

“Rose,” says Alma, “are you trying to sidetrack me?”

“No, I’m really interested.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She rattles her notes. “It sounds so—spinsterish,” she finishes carefully. “And on top of that, Almas are never famous in their own right They’re always married to famous males.”

“Now that’s not true,” Rose emerges from the kitchenette. “I’ve heard of many famous Almas. Let me think. What about Alma Mahler?” She presents the piece of cake. “Let me tell you about this cheese cake. I got the recipe from Estelle Feurbaum. F-e-u-r-b-a-u-m. This woman was a legend in her time in the New York Hadassah. I’m telling you so her name won’t be forgotten. If there were any justice in this world, she from all of us would be alive today recording her life for your book. Such a tragedy.”

“What happened to her?” Alma asks. “What kind of tragedy?”

“Very great,” says Rose. “If you won’t taste, take a look at her recipe. You’ll see what I mean.”

_____________

 

Ron watches Alma from the bed. Brushing out her wet hair, she stands with a towel draped over her cotton shirt. Plain and expensive, her clothes seem young for her. Not incongruous, but unforgiving. She buys jeans and dresses cut for her younger self, the waist she must have had in college, hips and breasts not yet thickened with extra weight It makes him a little sad. Not because he didn’t know her when she was younger; he believes her when she says she was a little bitch. It’s just that it saddens him to think she dresses as she remembers herself. Still, she does it more out of habit than vanity. Her money is like that, too. A habit outgrown, but not outworn. It was something of a joke at the department when they first started going out “She only wears jeans and old T shirts!” they said. “But have you noticed, they’re never the same jeans and T shirts?”

Alma’s cousin Liz is showing her pen-and-ink animals at the Royce Gallery, so they are going to the opening. They both hate gallery openings. Ron hates the people and Alma hates the art. It’s one of her inherited pretensions; her mother is a collector.

“Tell me again why we’re going to this thing,” says Ron.

She turns on him. “Because it’s her first show in three years! This is a very stressful point in her life. She really is marrying Tom this time and she needs reinforcement or she’ll run back to Yosemite and you know she doesn’t take care of herself out there—we’ve been through this before.”

“Yes,” he says, “but it’s so funny.”

She misses this last in the roar of her blow drier.

_____________

 

From the Royce Gallery Ron can see two others. One sells handpainted silk scarves and holds classes Mondays. The other offers handcrafted wood furniture—that is, if working out back with a Sears router counts as hand work. Besides the galleries there are boutiques with their starched Indian rags and icecream stores, bright and blank—room for standing customers only. Galleries are like that, too; nowhere to sit. Ron smiles when he thinks of Venice’s old attractions. He used to take his day-campers to Muscle Beach for snow cones—strawberry, orange, grape, no gourmet flavors—and then for a tour of the Hyperion Treatment Plant. “How old are you?” his seven-year-olds asked him, and he told them he was ninety-nine. They believed him, too. Later on he went to the endangered-programs beach parties. Ethnic Studies would challenge Women’s Studies for volleyball and afterward everyone sat on the sand and stuffed themselves with homemade food. Then a few people would stay and get stoned quietly under the stars.

In the chatter by the drinks table a long-legged woman leans toward him companionably. “I miss Venice,” he tells her.

“This is Venice,” she says.

He cups his hands and whispers in her ear, “I mean old Venice.”

She clutches her drink. “What, Venice, Italy?”

Across the room, Alma squeezes her cousin’s hand. “Hey,” she says. “How do you feel?”

Liz stands with her arms at her sides watching the crowd. “I’m OK,” she answers tremulously. “What are you doing nowadays?”

“Oral histories of women in Venice.”

“Oh, wow,” says Liz, “that must be a lot of work—”

“It is,” Alma cuts in, “but it’s worth it. There’s so much great material out there.” She smiles quickly at Liz’s fiancé and moves on to avoid his frozen black eyes.

The drawings crowd the walls in distressed wood frames. “Such fine draftsmanship,” muses a salesman. Alma nods, but the fine detail disturbs her. The lines seem unnaturally concentrated, like leaf veins under a magnifying glass. Every quill on Liz’s hedgehog is equally important, every hair on a mouse is equally focused. She draws with a hawk’s-eye vision, Alma thinks, but there must be a way to draw with human sight There has to be a rule for finding significant details, a method of selective focus. Moving to the open door for air, she finds herself staring at a small bronze of the Indian maiden Sacajawea. The stern figure stands slit-eyed against the elements. So powerful. So angry. Her hair thrown back in the wind. Her baby lodged like a stone against her heart. Her lips mute.

_____________

 

The living room is stifling when they get home because whenever they leave the house they have to close and lock the windows for security. “I’m getting central air-conditioning,” Alma announces.

Ron looks at her aghast. “That’s ridiculous! Alma, this is just a brief heat wave!”

“This happens every summer,” she says. “It’s just beginning.” She flips on the answering machine.

“Alma, it’s Mom,” enunciates Nan Renquist from the tape. “No message except I look forward to seeing you Saturday.”

Ron scowls at the machine. “I’m not supervising any air-conditioning while you’re gone,” he tells Alma.

“No one asked you to.” She watches the machine cycle through two hang-ups. Suddenly it crackles.

“This is Rose Markowitz. I am feeling very ill, my dear, and I would like to cancel the interview for Monday. Simone passed away yesterday. . . .”

“Shit!” Alma throws herself down on the rug.

“I haven’t slept all night,” Rose continues, “which is not unusual for me except that I had a terrifying dream which I hardly ever do. She was standing above me dressed in her terrible blue gown. An evening gown which she wore to the senior-citizens’ dinners.”

“Jesus!” Alma moans. “Simone was fine last week. I’ve got five weeks of tapes on her! What happened?” She flicks off the machine.

“Hey, I was listening to that” Ron flips the button.

The voice stretches on. “I told her at the time I thought the dress was inappropriate; it was foolish to wear a thing like that and threadbare, too. It looked shoddy, to tell the truth, and it was inappropriate to wear on this so-called bingo night. They all wear them of course. . . .” Her voice fades for a second. “When I saw her there she looked at me and looked and she wouldn’t say anything and I kept calling her but she wouldn’t answer me and I felt sure I was growing mad. There is a gentleman here they just took away with Alzheimer’s mad as a hatter; he couldn’t remember his own wife they said—she died two years ago. . . .”

“Would you turn that thing off?” Alma stamps into the other room, but Ron bends over the tape.

“So she wouldn’t answer me. She just stood above my bed like a ghost until morning and now I feel terribly ill. She used to dream like this, you know, and now I’m dreaming the way she did. She used to smile and smile; she loved to sleep more and more, she said, and just before she passed away she dreamt she met her sweetheart looking just as he used to look—she saw him at Marina del Rey in her dream—and he told her, ‘Je me souviens. Je me souviens, Simone. Je me souviens.’ And I asked her who is it who remembered you? She would just smile and smile. ‘It was one of them,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure which.’” The tape cuts off.

Ron finds Alma curled up on the bed. “They’ll all be dead by the time I finish,” she sobs. “And I’ll never get this done anyway because they don’t understand what I’m doing at all! I talked to Rose’s doctor, you know. She takes tranquilizers. Half the time she’s blowing her mind on some form of Percodan. You heard her just now.”

“She was great,” says Ron.

“Don’t you get sarcastic with me!”

“I’m not!” he says. “I think she’s fascinating. You should copy the tape from the machine.”

“You don’t understand,” she cries. “You think it’s funny, but don’t you see, all I have is tapes like that Hours and hours of trivial reminiscences, insignificant data.”

“Alma—” he puts his hand on her shoulder but she shakes him off.

“Can’t you see,” she gasps. “They’re incoherent They can’t tell past and present apart Half the time they don’t know when they’re awake or sleeping. I can’t get facts or dates from them. Only these muddled stories. What kind of vehicle do I have here? What can I do with this shit?”

“Calm down,” says Ron. “It’s not worth getting upset about.”

“Yes, it is worth it! I’d like to see you just once get upset about an idea!”

“Well,” Ron smiles, “I don’t have a religion like you. The thing is, though, you have to work with what you’ve got. I’ll help you, but I’m not Robert Coles—what can I say?”

She laughs a little at this and turns over. “Oh God, Ron, I’m such a fool. Could you tell me in a non-patronizing way that you’ll take care of me?”

“Give me a minute,” he says wryly, but she’s up and washing her face. “At least I won’t have Rose on Monday,” she sniffs. “I’ll have a respite this weekend.”

“Now that’s dangerous. She’ll convince you to give up. Your mother will talk you out of the whole thing.”

“Thanks a lot! She’s not talking me out of anything.”

“We’ll see,” says Ron.

_____________

 

Ron does’t know Alma’s mother at all. When she calls she asks for Alma without identifying herself. And she never leaves messages with him. Only on the answering machine. He pictures Nan as Alma describes her—someone who smoothes away and subdues all opposition. He has his own private image of her, too, more place than person: windless rooms and vapid water. He imagines her house surrounded by still blue swimming pools.

He senses Nan’s presence while Alma is away. He feels the way she pulls invisibly from her house outside the city so that Alma changes her plans and comes when she calls. Alma, otherwise strong willed, indignant, earnest Those were the qualities he first liked in her, and above all her energy. Not her arguments, he realizes now, but the way she argues, the way she jumps out of her chair, the way she laughs when cornered as if she could sweep away objections with her hands.

She’s wonderful at protestations, manifestoes. An orator at picnics, flushed with sun and wine. He’s heard the stories about her riding lessons, Mount Holyoke, her wedding afterward. They’re in Egypt on their honeymoon and she’s riding this stinking camel when these Bedouin women start following them. They’re watching her, talking among themselves, and finally the old one comes up to her guide and starts pointing. The guide says, “They want to know how much your husband paid for you.” So here she is, with this camel shitting underneath her, giving them the big speech about how in America you marry out of love; the man doesn’t pay for you. The guide translates, and the Bedouins start up again, talking among themselves. Finally one points to her engagement ring. The guide says, “They want to know how much he paid for that” And seriously, she knew right there she was going to leave her husband. She’s not going to get bought again.

He’s laughed at this and he’s waited straight-faced not to give it away and then watched the rest laugh. And now the story and the laughter afterward cycle together in his mind like dust and a record needle. It scratches him, it hurts him to remember how she tells this standing next to him, arms folded, eyes for her audience. Each time she loses something in the telling. Her tapes are like that, too. It shocks him how cheap she sounds. Everything fresh about her stripped to an insistent, alien voice. It’s strange how delicate the old women sound in contrast. They speak without an end, and it’s a kind of music, the long slow ramble of their voices.

“Now did Rose tell you about the ferns?” Eileen asks from tape E.M. 3. “Well, I came in to water; the two of them looked just pitiful to see. So I boiled some water because I’d read years ago tea was the fertilizer for ferns. I watered them with tea, cooled off, of course, and when I came in next morning they’d just perked right up—looked so much better, and all in one night! I kept house for my Daddy in West Virginia: I dug up two ferns from somewhere and planted them one on each side of the porch. I used tea, pots of it; kept it in the fridge and heated it a little to take the chill off, of course, and pretty soon those ferns were big like this. They used to stop on the road to take pictures of them. It was a cream farm. We sold cream once a week. The milk was for the pigs and the calves in spring. May to July, or was it August? I forget when the calves got milk. We raised most everything. Sold what was left over—we made certain there was plenty left to sell. That was the advantage for us children. If we raised tomatoes we got the cash. Yes, we took them to the produce market; the prices came from Pittsburgh—you could read them in the paper, and when radios came along you could hear them. When Dad died I didn’t want to go back. . . .”

“But why? Why didn’t you?” That was Alma.

“Oh, you know how it is.”

“No, I don’t know. Tell me why !”

It strikes Ron the way she spends herself on little questions. And they are little, they are trivial, he thinks.

_____________

 

ALMA has trouble sleeping at home. She unbinds herself from the tight sheets and slips downstairs. She wants to take a walk but can’t remember how to turn off the new alarm system. As cluttered as Rose’s place, she thinks as she paces through the house. Mom’s clutter is older, though. The house stands like a retrospective exhibit of Mom’s phases. Hopi pottery and shards of ancient blue glass, Roman coins, hand puppets and bas reliefs bought together in Indonesia. Mayan wood carvings. Most of her things are broken, and usually in a set there is one thing missing. Dad would point this out when Mom returned from her excursions. He would line up a set of graduated gold wire circlets and ask, “Now where are number two and five? Your mother buys seconds,” he told Alma.

Even before Dad died Mom traveled alone. In the summers she took Alma with her—mostly to excavations. They went to Ashkelon once, and after high-school graduation, Pompeii and Herculaneum. Albums of pictures crowd the bookcases. It’s frightening the way she keeps them among the artifacts. The photos themselves are such a mixture of dead and live things. Nan and Alma Renquist grinning in Pompeii among the corpses preserved where they went about their business. As Alma flips the album pages, it seems to her the ashen bodies on the streets look more alive, clutching themselves, doubled over, than the tourists frozen upright in the photos. What, after all, has Alma to do with the girl in white shorts? And what relation has her mother to this younger woman holding out something invisible and now forgotten in her hand? Rose and the others with old photo albums talk about themselves as girls, but they are speaking really of other people. Impatiently she forces the albums back on the shelves. They’d planned an early start to go riding the next day, but Alma sleeps through her alarm and Nan doesn’t wake her. “You’re exhausted,” she murmurs when Alma appears for lunch.

“No I’m not,” Alma contradicts.

They take a trail up above the canyon, and riding slowly they can feel the sky burning against the red hills. The clouds evaporate above them. “I can almost understand Liz out here,” Alma tells her mother.

“She’s really marrying him!” Nan says wonderingly. “I can’t imagine what sort of children they’ll have.”

“They won’t have any.”

“You never know,” Nan smiles.

Alma bends over her horse. “I know.”

“Are you still seeing—”

“Yes,” says Alma. “We’re sifting data.”

“And then what?” Nan asks.

“Oh, God, I don’t know.” They stand at the edge of the canyon where the red walls break away to the bottom. “Maybe we’ll break up.” She looks at Nan slyly. “Maybe we’ll get married. Mommy, I was teasing! I didn’t mean anything. Besides, we’re never going to finish the project, so you don’t have to worry about what’ll happen afterward.”

“I do worry,” says Nan. “I worry about the way you throw yourself into these projects without an end in sight. You don’t consider what they cost you in time or—”

“Oh, say what you mean,” Alma challenges. “It’s not the project you’re upset about.”

“Don’t finish my sentences. You work yourself into the ground with these interviews just the way you did with your thesis. And I don’t care what kind of feminist-Marxism they taught you at Berkeley; you’re acting compulsive. Just tell me honestly if you think this history project is going anywhere.”

Alma blinks, but counters, “First you tell me if you’re talking about the project or about Ron. You can’t seem to separate the two.”

“No, it’s you who can’t separate them,” says Nan.

_____________

 

“Rose called while you were gone,” Ron tells her.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she says.

“Given up on her?”

Alma flings her backpack down. “Look, I don’t have to transcribe every goddamn phone message. I don’t have to be on call every waking hour. And that does not mean I’ve given up!”

“Welcome home,” he says. “Glad to see you had such a good weekend.”

She turns away. Sliding out one of her filing cabinets, she begins sorting the new batch of transcripts the typist delivered.

He picks up the paper. “Did she ask about me?” he asks.

“Sort of.”

“What did she say?”

“I don’t know. Nothing much. How am I supposed to remember blow by blow?”

“You’re supposed to be an oral historian,” he points out.

“Well, she’s my mother, for God’s sake. People don’t listen to their mother.” She brushes the hair out of her eyes. “I’m getting central air-conditioning. We can’t work like this.”

“Don’t do me any favors with her money,” mutters Ron.

“Who said it was for you?” she challenges, hurt “I’m worried about Flush. Look at him. He’s suffering in this house. Look at those eyes I” She tosses one of Eileen Meeker’s files on the floor and sighs, “What do you make of this stuff?”

“I listened to some of it,” he says carelessly.

“Here’s what I’ve been thinking about Eileen,” Alma says, “The key is, she doesn’t go back to the farm. It’s just before the war. The Depression is over; she joins the Marines. Now what do you make of that? The resources of the farm are depleted.”

“If you want my opinion,” Ron says, “what she’s describing is how to revive dying ferns. And then she remembers the farm. Stop pushing it. Stop pushing all the time.”

She slams the file drawer. “If you don’t want to think about the analysis, then leave me alone and don’t interfere with my work.”

“Terrific You wrap up the Inquisition and I’ll finish my book.”

“Oh, your book,” she snaps. “As if I’m the one dragging you away from that! It was your idea, remember. You wanted to help me.”

“That’s right,” says Ron, “and now I want to stop. I have perfect confidence in you. You know exactly what these women should say and I’m sure singlehandedly you can lead them to the truth about their lives.”

“Oh, shut upl” she forces open a window. “You never wanted to help me, only criticize my work. You just want to control what I say. You don’t want me to be independent.”

“Oh, I don’t!” laughs Ron. “Why don’t you try that little speech on Mom. I know it works better on men, but I think if we’re talking about control—”

“She does not control met”

“Prove it,” he says. “If she didn’t—if you ever had the courage of your convictions—you would have married me.”

“Don’t flatter yourself!” she snaps.

He tilts his head and looks at her. “You’re right,” he concludes. “She doesn’t control you. You’re already just like her.”

“You don’t understand!”

“But I do,” he says. “Your mother wants us to break up.”

“Of course she does,” Alma exclaims, “I’m her daughter!”

“So,” Ron says, “does she object to me on principle or does she also object to Jews?”

“You don’t even know her,” cries Alma. “And I hate you and the way you twist what I say. Do you have to call my mother a racist to understand that she doesn’t want me to marry you? Can’t you comprehend this on any other level? It would destroy my relationship with her—”

“You mean she’d disinherit you. That’s what you’re saying.”

“No!” she sobs in frustration, “I don’t care about the money.”

“Oh, Alma,” he says, “you’re such a hypocrite.”

_____________

 

“A girdle,” Rose tells her. “I’d never wear anything else. Some women over here wear whalebone. These old ladies promenading at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in their whalebone and gold lamé. Oof! They are so antiquated. I did see one whale, however. During the war, they took all the children to the Isle of Sandwich before they transported us to England. The Isle of Sandwich—and there was a whale on the beach; I still remember it I was so small and frail they had to carry me everywhere. But after a few months at the convent I blossomed out How I blossomed out!”

Alma doesn’t have the energy to find a chronology in this. The Isle of Sandwich must be the Isle of Man. But she doesn’t ask about it Untangling seems so unimportant, questioning so futile. Rose spins out her own chronology, and she knows the places she has been.

“I still remember the day Caruso died,” she continues seamlessly. “I was playing by the sea. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The place is ordinary now, but in the 20′s the resort was chic. Our governess had an operatic voice. She spent evenings at the piano and it was not unusual for a crowd to gather at the window. She was a lovely girl, but married quite beneath her.” She frowns searchingly. “He was in the chicken business, I believe. When I came here from England, other girls my age were dating, and I was still a little girl, size seventeen, incidentally. How my cousins stared at me! Shainey called me the Grina Cusina—she got the name from the song, you know. But I had something they didn’t My complexion was like perfect makeup. It was peaches, it was pink, people turned around in the street For my first date—do you know how old I was?” Alma looks up startled. “I was twenty-three,” Rose says.

On their first date, Ron and Alma had gone to the opening of The Birds at UCLA. Swinging on trapezes above the audience the actors merged Aristophanes with lampoons of Reaganomics. Alma got a crick in her neck watching, but somehow they made it to intermission. “Dive Bomb!” headlined the review in the Daily Bruin. Then they went to a recital series by a cellist friend who looked so exalted when he played, Ron used to moan, “If only they could turn off the sound!”

“There was a young man I was sweet on,” Rose muses. “And Shainey said to his real young lady: you have black eyebrows and yellow hair! That was unheard of. In those days it was unheard of to—to dissect people like that But he wasn’t the one, you know. When I first got engaged, my brother and my parents said they would never speak to me again. Alma!” she exclaims. “You’re not listening.”

Alma shakes herself. “Yes I am.”

“But you look terrible! What is it, dear? You haven’t said a word. What was that?”

“Nothing,” Alma whispers. “My boyfriend left”

“Oh yes,” Rose says, with perfect cognizance. “That’s just what I was saying. My brother swore never to speak to me again or even utter my name in his house. He did it too!”

“He was Jewish,” says Alma.

“Of course he was. All my husbands were Jewish.”

“No, Ron.” She wants overwhelmingly to run away, to break away from Rose and the long empty romance of Rose’s life.

Rose considers Alma’s case a moment “Well,” she concludes, “if he was Jewish, it was a good thing you parted. If you had married it would have broken his mother’s heart! Anyway, they all thought he was no good. It turned out they were right, too. So I had to come back home. Can you imagine? Don’t cry, dear. It was only my first marriage. It was very sad, but you know, somehow I lived through it! Don’t feel bad.”

_____________

 

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