The apartment smelled like boiled turnips and it was ten degrees hotter than it needed to be. The nurse didn’t speak, but she smiled as she unhooked the door chain and showed me in. Maybe she was glad for the company. My smooth face, not yet creased by life experience, shined in sharp contrast to Mr. Rutherford’s countenance, which read like the intersecting rail lines of the MTA subway map, the inscrutable one from the seventies, before the commuter-friendly redesign. He was ready for me, dressed in clean pajamas, with a throw blanket carefully folded over his knees, and wheeled to a spot in the living room where he was perfectly positioned to see both me and the view of sycamores out his window.
Community service has traditionally been an integral part of the Packer curriculum, and one form it took in the early eighties was The Elderly Shut-In Program. Before Mr. Rutherford, I visited an old woman at the St. George in Brooklyn Heights. Once home to the largest indoor salt-water swimming pool in the United States, the St. George Hotel was now an SRO for the elderly; many of whom seemed sadly forgotten. One hot October afternoon, as I roamed the hotel hallways which reeked of Pine-Sol, looking for the room number that matched my slip of paper, I heard voices cry out from behind open doors—doors left ajar against loneliness. Is anyone there? I hear footsteps... I know someone's there... Hello? Hello? I slipped by each cracked door, holding my breath. I finally found her, in a room roughly fifteen feet square. “Come in! Come in! It’s open!” screeched a faint voice, like a turkey vulture circling high above a hayfield.
Dressed in a leopard housecoat, she wore a lopsided wig, which barely covered her bad home dye job. She offered me a cookie from an open box, that shook so hard in her unsteady hand, two fell out. “A Lorna Doone?” she asked. “It’s shortbread. Go on, take one. They’re good.” I held the biscuit and wondered if it too, had been retrieved from the floor and returned to the box. She bit down sloppily on hers, crumbs sticking to her coral lips and sprinkling the animal spots in her lap. She had to be over 90.
I felt fear and revulsion, then shame for harboring these feelings. I was mad at myself for my inability to look beyond looks, and feel compassion for this lonely soul. But then I couldn’t bear the liver spots on my Texas Memaw’s knuckles either. These same knuckles which kneaded the home-baked bread I enjoyed so much, warm from the oven, smeared with butter and wild plum jam. I ate six Lorna Doones and tried to escape three times, before she finally let me go.
“I’ll see you soon right?” she begged. I forced a smile. I’d been trained to endure the visits of aunts with smothering bosoms, who hugged with excessive enthusiasm, but I knew I could never return here. As I slowly shut the door behind me, she cried feebly, “Oh leave it open! Please, leave it open...”
Once in the hallway I ran. (Funny I still recall those walls painted garish, high gloss avocado.) I ran past the sorrowful cells, now converted to dorm rooms, serving neighboring colleges. I still see that old woman, thirty-five years later: leopard smock, open box, and bed, dwarfing everything in the room. I still hear her faltering voice: “A Lorna Doone?” I’ve never outrun the memory of her desperate loneliness, and maybe that’s as it should be. Loneliness demands our attention. Unlike self-imposed solitude, a welcome break from the chatter of tongues and devices, loneliness is an unasked for silence that begs to be broken with conversation and laughter.
Mr. Rutherford, I was assured by the shut-in coordinator at Packer, would be an easier assignment. He didn’t have it so bad—an apartment on an upper floor in a pre-war building with large windows overlooking tree-lined Pierrepont Street. There was a private nurse who puttered in the background, always a corned beef or pork butt with some root vegetables steaming on the stove, and a nephew who lived somewhere in New Jersey who came to see him every so often. And now me, Thursday afternoons at half-past three.
Standing in the vestibule with another name noted on an index card, another housebound human waiting for visitors, I ran my finger down the bank of silver buttons and rang the bell. He buzzed me in longer than necessary. As the elevator door closed and I watched floors fall beneath me through the diamond-shaped window, I wondered what I could talk about with a strange old man. My classes? The colleges I was starting to consider?
“I like my 19th Century Russian Literature class. We’re reading Anna Karenina,”I offered politely, perched on the edge of a maroon sofa, straight out of The Waltons. He didn’t answer. His eyelids drooped and I couldn’t tell if he was dozing or if they were always like that now, after the aneurysm. The Shut-In program coordinator had taken the time to describe the side effects of stroke to me. Droopy eyelids, uncontrollable drooling, testiness. I fiddled with the doily on the armrest—hundreds of lacy loops worked around a core, now a dingy snowflake. Crochet: lost art, that’s for sure, I thought. Under the doily, I noticed water rings left from highball glasses and cigarette burns—furniture tattoos of good times. I imagined Mr. Rutherford in the 1950s with a Bloody Mary, a Chesterfield and a warm female bottom in his lap. I could picture that. The stroke had robbed his lids of full mobility, but the sky-blue eyes beneath were cloudless, mischievous.
His breath caught in his chest as he inhaled. I waited anxiously for each release. He’s asleep, I decided. An angry voice with a Bronx accent came from the kitchen. Talk radio. I thought about my grandmother, the insomniac, who listened to talk radio into the wee hours.
“Tolstoy… hmm… What agony!” Mr. Rutherford suddenly boomed. “When she’s there on the platform at the railroad station...Mmm...”
Startled, I sprang up, and felt the sofa coils shiver under me. “She’s kind of like Erica Kane on All My Children," I answered. "Very emotional.”
He scowled, “Who?”
“Never mind,” I replied.
“Do you still study Latin in school?” he raised his eyebrows hopefully.
“Some kids do. Not so many. Who needs Latin anymore?”
He glowered at me, “You’ve got a big empty space up here,” he barked, tapping his temple, “fill it up!”
He unfolded his handkerchief and coughed up an oyster. I looked away.
“You’ll see, you’ll need Latin someday...”
You've got a big empty space up here. Fill it up. He must have used that expression a half-dozen times that first day, tapping at his temple with a shaky finger each time he said it. The skin that stretched over his forehead seemed as fragile as the film on boiled milk. A big empty space... Fill it up! I turned away each time, unable to watch the blue vein trembling under the surface of his brow, like bubbles beneath scalding milk. He exhausted our hour together by harkening back to a time when streetcars crisscrossed Brooklyn and snowstorms lasted for days—a time when the same postman brought you your mail every day, and when you thanked him for his faithful service at Christmas with a tin of pipe tobacco from Dunhill’s. I pulled at a loose thread in the sofa’s upholstery and looked out the window at sleet falling on the bare treetops.
“I wonder if the snow was better back then,” I mumbled.
“It was!” he barked. Then he surprised me.
“You know, Martin’s department store was the Saks Fifth Avenue of Downtown Brooklyn. They carried all the big designers, just like Saks and Bergdorf’s and B. Altman’s. That was a fine store, Martin’s. And those elevator operators were something else in their white gloves. You know, those elevator men never let anyone darker than cream cheese board their elevators. Real bastards, every one of them!”
“I guess it wasn’t all better back then.”
“No, it wasn’t,” he said softly.
I watched the home attendant lift the lid off the pot on the stove and stick a two-pronged fork through the steam, piercing mystery meat below.
“Where do you live?” he barked.
“State Street, in Boerum Hill.”
I rotated my wrist discretely to read my watch. 4:35. Mr. Rutherford tilted his chin and looked off.
“I went to grammar school in a red brick schoolhouse on State Street at Fourth Avenue.”
I knew the building, 475 State. Teens walked up and down my block all the time looking for that address.
“That’s where kids go for their working papers now,” I said.
“Working papers?” he spat back. “Ach! Everything’s changed!”
He puckered his mouth in disdain, then suddenly, his face opened like the first snowdrop of spring and he grinned with long, yellow teeth.
“Well, at least they haven’t torn the building down. It’s good for kids to work, even if they have to get papers..”
“Did you work as a kid?”
“Sure I did! My uncle had a hat store on Fulton Street. I ran errands for him after school, swept up, took inventory. When I got a little older he showed me how to block hats.” He straightened the blanket on his lap. “You can get a lot of seasons out of a good hat if you take care of it.”
“I don’t know anybody who wears a hat,” I said.
“Really? I never left home without a hat!”
I tried to tuck the thread back into the weave of the fabric—it was as long as my arm now—but it bristled up defiantly. Mr. Rutherford dozed off again. Drool was pooling in the corner of his mouth. 5 o’clock.
“I’ve got to go now,” I announced, in a raised voice.
He jumped slightly and wiped his mouth with a clean corner of his handkerchief.
“Same time next week Mr. Rutherford?” I asked.
“I’ll be here!”
He rolled to the front door. The attendant let me out with a worried smile, her eyes asking: You will be back, won't you?
And I was, every week, but after a while I started to space out my visits to every couple of weeks, then halfway through senior year—foolishly—I stopped visiting entirely. There just wasn’t enough time for Mr. Rutherford, his old stories, his quiet nurse, his worn sofa. Nothing else mattered much, now that I’d been accepted into college. I’d be taking Metro North to a new life in the fall. I was coasting to graduation in that spring of 1983; I even cut French class once to watch a pivotal episode of All My Children. (No VCR recording tapes yet.) I went to parties in Manhattan, got a boyfriend, got kissed for the first time.
When he died the following March of my freshman year, I took the train down for the wake on one of those weird New Haven winter days when the sky spewed slush. Watching flakes the size of nickels crash and melt on window glass, I regretted the way I’d let our visits lapse, without a proper goodbye. The Golden Bowl sat heavily on my lap, open to the same page, from New Haven to Bridgeport. I finally shut it at Stamford. Henry James was impossible that morning. For the rest of the way I stared at the wallpaper: the New York and Connecticut State emblems, alternating the length of the railroad car. I tried to think of what I would remember most about Mr. Rutherford.
The funeral home smelled of strawberry disinfectant over formaldehyde. Proust was right. Our sense of smell trumps the other four. A man with a big head in a navy suit, about fifty, greeted the bereaved. Must be his nephew, I thought. As I entered the chapel I heard laughter and was surprised to see the pews full of chatty seniors, not the sad kind from the St. George, but the ones who organize, take bus trips to Atlantic City to play blackjack, hit the all-you-can-eat buffets, and stroll the boardwalk—the kind, still in good health, who make pilgrimages to Lourdes or the mall in Short Hills. A slim blonde in a beige pantsuit with a gold chain belt approached me. She had olive green eyes underneath arched brows.
“Oh you must be Maria! Aren’t you adorable? I’m Sylvia, Ruthy’s close friend. He used to talk about you all the time. He was so proud of you. He just loved your visits.”
“Oh? He was? He did?” I was surprised he talked about me to others. What had he told her? That I came to see him once in a while? That I seemed bored a lot of the time? That he sometimes nodded off during my visits?
It was as if she’d read my mind: “You listened to him Maria. You let him whine about rising crime and kids with no manners. He was very opinionated you know.”
She laughed and hooked a lacquered fingernail in a golden belt link. She’s a sexpot, I smiled to myself, a seventy-five-year-old sexpot. I remembered the cigarette burns singed into the arm of his sofa. Were they hers? “He could talk to you about the past,” Sylvia said. “I never let him talk about the past! I’m always looking ahead to my next trip. We’re all going to the Poconos in April to see how they make maple syrup.”
I glanced at the row of lively widows, not in black, but sherbet colors, huddled and giggling, even at a wake, their bangle bracelets clinking merrily.
“C’mon, maple syrup?" Sylvia scoffed, "It sounds like a bore to me, but the girls talked me into it.”
I suddenly remembered Mr. Rutherford, folded up in a wheelchair, one November afternoon just before I stopped my visits. It was the first snow of the season. He was telling me how he made snow cones from freshly fallen snow and maple syrup drizzled on top. I remember how his lined face shone as he described this... like a child’s, in July, at dusk, in a field of fireflies.
I meant to write him from college, but never got around to it. He would have liked a letter about my animated Italian teacher (actually, an Irish-American Italophile) and my first tailgate party. Frozen fingers. Boys in blue painted faces. Boola Boola. He would have liked to learn about the subterranean campus library, housing all that knowledge...
Twelve across: _____et Praeterea Nihil. Fifty-six down: Virtute et _____ (Motto of Mississippi). I fiddle my pencil in frustration. It slips, lands on its rubber eraser, and bounces off the mostly blank puzzle. Virtute et ______. How is anyone outside of Biloxi supposed to get that one? I think of him. It would help to know Latin right now. It’s a Sunday in mid-November, thirty-five years since I first entered his home and wriggled my nose against the aroma of boiled beef. I’m procrastinating. I need to start writing a term paper—yes, at my age, in school for a certificate to teach English. He’d like that, me tackling Tolstoy with thirteen-year-olds... The empty cells of the puzzle bother me. I toss the Times Magazine on the recycling heap. Turn of the century Brooklyn—milk in bottles, streetcars and decent people. Suddenly, I’m hearing it all again. It’s coming back to me, his Brooklyn: the influenza epidemic, Abraham & Straus department store, the snowball fights and both World Wars: the draft, pouring off hot lard into grease cans, and victory gardens, even in the city. I wish I could tell him about my Brooklyn today. Dancing to big bands under the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Single-A franchise of the New York Mets, now playing in a ballpark at Coney Island—not the Dodgers by any swing of the bat, but baseball just the same, returned to Brooklyn.
It’s Christmas now. The streets are dusted white. We’ve had an early snowfall. I hang an ornament he gave me on the tree— a depression-era, mercury glass church. The paint is chipped and there’s a hole in its steeple. Rats Mr. Rutherford! I wish you were here right now. I could reach out on my windowsill and make you a maple snow ball. I could ask insinuating questions about you and Sylvia, in the gold link belt. You could polish off this damn puzzle.
I move the ornament to a higher branch where it catches the light better. I peer up into the hole in the steeple. Are you looking down on me through this small hole Mr. Rutherford? You are! I see you tapping your temple now. I hear you barking at me: ‘You’ve got a big empty space up here... Fill it up!’—me, now three times the age I was when I first crossed your threshold, heeding your advice today, and back in school.