I met Alina Konefsky when I was fourteen and lonely in a new
community. She lived in what had been the caretaker's cottage
before they turned Apple Lake into a development. My mother
set me up as Alina's dog walker, because my own dog had died under the
wheels of a neighbor's car while our family was house hunting. In
my mind, this was only about the dog, a dachshund named Schatzie.
I knocked, the dog barked, and a deep voice said, "Have no fear, the
little swine-hound is friendly." The door, not locked, opened
into a dim space crowded with tables and stacks of things on the tables
and more stacks of things on the chairs and floor. Before I could
find the woman among the stacks, she exclaimed in a much higher pitch,
"But you're young! I was expecting someone who could drive!"
was an odor. At first I thought it was Schatzie, who waddled
toward me, wiggling her rear and piddling on the floor. But there
was more to the odor: garbage and something putridly sweet.
Possibly perfume, I thought as I approached Alina, and she seized both
my hands and pulled me close.
I lost my balance in an effort to
avoid stepping on a little dried Schatzie turd, and half fell onto a
leather ottoman in front of Alina's chair. "Young hands," she
murmured. "Soft, soft, soft! You don't know what jealousy
I kept my eyes on her hands: plump palms and
fingers decorated with many rings. Her nails were long, yellow,
and curved under. Slowly, I looked at the gold owl with red
gemstone eyes that fixed a shawl to her black, knitted
clothes. Finally, I looked into her face. "Touch is
my sense, dear," she murmured, using the deep tone again. "I
derive more from touch than most people do from radio and
television. Schatzie and I, you see, are legally blind."
She had just complained about how I looked too young, so I said, "You can't see?"
gave my hands a hard jerk, and her voice went snappish: "I said Legally
Blind! I didn't say I couldn't see! Legally blind is not
Helen Keller! It's partial loss of sight!"
The dog whined and licked my ankles.
Alina adjusted her hold
on my hands. "Dogs, of course, depend more on their sense of smell, so
blindness is much less of an imposition on them. Schatzie and I
have been waiting and waiting for you."
"They didn't tell me I was supposed to come at a special time."
course not. No one takes the simple little final steps, the small
details. The devil is in the details, they say. Wait now,
don't tell me. It's on the tip of my tongue.
Lavender? Sage? Ginger? When you have a visual
memory as I do, the failure of vision--and by the way macular
degeneration is the least of my physical ailments--blindness gets in
the way of remembering. I'm at a loss. Help me."
I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought it might be about perfume.
"Your name, darling. They told me your name and I forgot it."
"Oh," I said. "Rosemary?"
released my hands, and I could sit more normally.
"Rosemary. Rosemary for remembrance, I believe. The little
irony does not escape me. But speak directly, Rosemary, without
the question marks that you young people today are so fond of. If
it's shyness, shyness can be overcome. Many of the Abstract
Expressionists were shy, but you wouldn't know it because they primed
their pumps with alcohol. Everyone drank too much in those
days. But once they began to talk, who cares how they
primed. My God! Epiphanies as common as belches!
Grand riffs on the meaning of the universe, earthy and salacious all at
once. They found me prudish in the beginning. A challenge
to their manhood. Pollock himself once told me that I was too
ethereal to be an artist. But Pollock was trying to seduce me, so
I didn't take it seriously. All of them tried to seduce me.
And none of them really believed women could be artists. I
supported an artist. You were praised for doing that in those days,
Rosemary. Reach me my glasses, will you? They should be on
the mantle. Schatzie is so thankful you've finally come.
Although I was led me to expect you sooner and older."
mantle had a mirror, spotted with purple, and stacks of National
Geographic magazines, tied with twine. A pair of glasses with red
frames hung over a dusty wrought iron sculpture like a sailboat
carrying a satellite dish.
"On the Outrey, dear! The glasses are on the Outrey!"
I handed them to her.
She said, "You've heard of Robert Outrey? He named himself, you know. That's the kind of artist he was."
"He made the sailboat thing?"
thing? Does everything you say have a question mark at the
end? I suppose his work is rather more than the representation of
a boat. Your 'sailboat thing' is the work of a great genius,
Robert Outrey, colleague and boon companion of Pollock, Rothko,
Motherwell. A genius among geniuses. And much more than a
friend to me, but that story is for another time. Tea now, and
I was about to say No thanks I didn't want any
tea, but she started telling me where the pot was to boil the water and
how you had to light the stove with matches, also on the stove, and the
tea bags were in a green cannister. "If I still have tea bags,"
she said. "It's been so long since I've been able to go to the
After the living room, the kitchen seemed bare, the
stove sitting against an old tiled wall all by itself. Before I
could find the matches, she called, "Young woman! Rosemary!
Wait! I changed my mind! Don't touch anything in the
kitchen. Walk the dog first."
A voice in my head said, I am not a servant, you know!
She said, "Schatzie needs her walk."
stepped into the doorway and looked at her, clumped in her chair,
surrounded by all her stuff. "I came to walk the dog," I
said. "I am not Cinderella!"
There was a silence: I
amazed at my own temerity, and Alina amazed at something too, but it
didn't seem to be the same thing. She adjusted her glasses, gave
me a once over. "You even said that with a question mark."
"I did not!"
young are never the servants of the old. They may think they are,
but that is their paranoid delusion. All I am asking you--if you
could see your way clear--do me the favor--is to please take Schatzie
for her walk. If you have the time--if you feel like doing it--"
This was irony, I thought, if not sarcasm. "I don't mind walking the dog," I said. "I like dogs."
like dogs. That's clear. You like dogs, but not old
people. Fine, take Schatzie for her walk. I can wait.
I am dry as a dusty old road, parched with thirst, but of course we
must think first of little Schatzie. No one takes care of
me. If you want to talk about servants, think of where Robert
Outrey would have been without my servitude. Freely given, of
course. Some of them, some of the women, managed to be artists in
their own right as well. Lee Krasner and Helen
Frankenthaler. Helen gets retrospectives at the Whitney
Museum. But then, she never had to work, did she? Private
schools, a family to support her. Of course you can explore your
talent then. But I did not come from privilege. I thought I
was blessed because I got to waitress tables to support a genius!
Who knows what art I might have made myself. If you want to
talk about servants, here is your servant! Your humble servant--"
I might have apologized, if she had given me a chance to speak.
leash is on the hall tree by the door," she said. "Let her go the
direction she wants. She'll walk along the road, and then go back
through the gates as far as the driveway of the first house, but no
farther! There's a brutal mastiff there. Tied up, but
ferocious. Be careful, her heart isn't strong."
was hidden under a velvet cloak that made me sneeze. Schatzie
went into a frenzy of happiness, her little front feet hopping up a
half inch off the floor.
As Alina predicted, Schatzie had a
precise route. First along the sidewalk in front of the cottage
to the 25 miles per hour sign where the sidewalk ended. She
squatted and peed there, then trotted back in the other direction.
passed the cottage and marched through the gates of Apple Lake Estates,
stopped at the driveway where Alina had said we would stop. I
tried to turn around, but Schatzie balked and backed into the weeds
where she squatted again and did her main business with some groans and
shaking of her rear end. "Done?" I said to her. "Ready to
go back now, old lady?"
But Schatzie wasn't ready. She took two steps onto the gravel of
the driveway to the first of the Apple Lake Estates houses, one of the
smaller ones like ours. The fur rose on the back of her
neck. She growled down in her throat, then yapped shrilly five
times, to which a distant dog answered with a deep-throated baying.
"So," I said to Schatzie, "You're the instigator! You're the one who starts it with that big dog."
She waggled cheerfully and pranced toward home.
had told me to leave the door unlocked, but when we stepped inside, her
chair was empty. Schatzie padded over to her basket and burrowed
deep into some rags and sweaters. I said, "Mrs. Konefsky?"
room had a door in the center of each wall: the front door, the kitchen
door, and two others. One of them opened, and Alina stood in the
semi-darkness, hard to see in her dark clothes.
"Well don't just stand there! I need help! What took you so long?"
went to her, and she clamped a hand on my shoulder and pressed her
weight into it, deeply, as if she meant to go right through to
the carpet. She's been in the bathroom, I thought. Just
like Schatzie. She clamped onto my shoulder more firmly, smelling
of flowers with an undertone of pee.
She said nothing as we
crossed the room, but her breathing was noisy on my neck and
face. For fear of smelling her, I breathed through my
mouth. When we got to the old fashioned plush arm chair,
she dropped heavily, releasing a grunt or maybe a fart. She
sucked in air for several seconds, eyes bright and mouth tight as if
she were terribly angry at me. "Well?"
"Did she do her business?"
"Next to that driveway, in the weeds."
"She shouldn't go in the weeds. She'll get fleas."
"You said to let her go where she wanted."
"Not in the weeds! Never in the weeds!"
"You didn't say that! You never said anything about weeds. Also, you should know, she barked first."
"Barked first? What do you mean she barked first?"
"The big dog you warned me about. Schatzie started it. She barked first."
Alina made a fist and pounded on her chair. "She did not bark first! You put my dog in danger!"
are a prevaricating young woman!" She tossed her clumps of black
hair. "I changed my mind! I don't want tea! I want to
be alone! Go! Now!"
"No problem !" I was hot,
insulted, and very clear headed. "Good bye, Schatzie!" I shouted
as I slammed the door behind me.
* * *
mother and her new friends from the community convinced me to go back
on Saturday. If I had not been lonely, if I had had a dog of my
own, I wouldn't have gone. In my mind I saw Schatzie's milky eyes
and heard her sincere if lazy tail thump. It's not as if I've
committed myself to anything, I thought. I hardly spoke to Alina
on Saturday; I didn't go on Sunday; and on Monday after school,
when I brought Schatzie back, Alina said in a shrill, spiteful tone:
"You're very nice to dogs, aren't you!"
The only reason I'm doing this, I told myself, is that I don't have anything better to do after school. This week.
Wednesday, when I brought Schatzie back, Alina asked if I would help
her get to the bathroom. "I'm not feeling well today," she said.
"I know you only come for Schatzie, but I need help. I feel so
bad I never even got dressed."
I had trouble telling her
clothes from her bathrobes. Everything was in dark colors, and
she always wore a shawl pinned with a big piece of costume jewelry. I
approached her cautiously, started breathing through my mouth.
She clamped her fingers into my shoulder.
Halfway to the
bathroom she staggered, and my knees buckled, but I caught
myself. I had a vision of the two of us in a big pile like
mushrooms on dead leaves, the fruiting bodies of some awful hidden life
form. She was squishy and fat, but clamped to my shoulder, she
was equal to my height, and heavy. The entire room seemed filled
with her. I forgot to mouth breathe, and caught a cloud of
cologne and powder, but something fecal underneath. I opened the
bathroom door, and she lurched inside. "Don't leave," she
rasped. "I need help getting back."
She was in the
bathroom a long time. I stared around the cluttered
room. A velvet fringed folding chair covered by department store
boxes. Stretched canvasses against the wall.
Schatzie wagged, as if to keep my courage up.
there was rustling and scraping, and then the door creaked open.
Slowly she launched herself forward, breaking her fall on my
shoulders. Her face was all I could see in the whole
world. Looking deeply into my eyes, she said, "Sick, just sick,"
and then, "Chair." I began to back up. I paused after each step,
and she lurched forward, weight falling on my shoulders, then shuffled
her feet until they were under her again and the weight balanced.
Then I took another step backwards. We shuffled and lurched
between stacks of magazines until she could brace herself on the chair
arms and lever herself into a position for dropping back.
My shoulders and thighs were trembling from the strain. "Do you need something else?"
time, I made the tea gladly and hovered near while she drank. I
said, "Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?"
shook her head no and drank all the way to the bottom as if it were a
glass of cold water and then laid her head back in her chair. After a
while, she said, "Reduced to this." Her eyes had an accusing
look, but knowing she was sick made me more sympathetic. She
said, "I wish now I had done more myself. Outrey told me he did
not believe a woman could make true art. A woman makes life, he
said. A man, banned from basic reproduction, makes art."
"He sounds sexist."
Who cares about sexist when it comes to genius! You can pick your
nose in public, and believe me, some of them did. It was enough
for me--to be among them. To be his prop, his human
buttress. I'm the exact same age as Helen Frankenthaler.
You don't even know who she is."
"You talked about her before. You said she was rich."
said she was a genius! The rest of them, big thick globs of paint
flung all over. But Helen poured her pigments on the
canvas! No globs and speckles for her. Her pigments soaked
through—voilą! A new thing! I wouldn't say I gave her the
idea, but I did say once, 'Helen, do it your way. Don't try to do
what they do.' I never had any training myself. How could I
get training? I had to work. I was half his age, and I was
supporting myself and him both!"
"You should have let him support himself," I said.
was definitely feeling better. "You don't know who any of them
are, do you? You have no idea, no idea what would have been lost,
if people like me had not done what we did." She jabbed the tea
cup at me. "Wash that out. Yes, yes, I know you're not
Cinderella, but who are you?"
"How should I know?" I said. "I'm fourteen years old."
"Well you'd better find out!" she shouted after me. "If you wait too long you'll lose your chance!"
I came out of the kitchen, I didn't ask if there was anything else I
could do, or what she ate and who fed her or how she got her
groceries. But after that day, I went for her as well as for
* * *
On good days, after I had
walked Schatzie and made tea, she would tell me stories of the
artists. When she first came to New York, she told me, Jackson
Pollock and Lee Krasner were already famous and living on the East End
of Long Island. De Kooning was indescribably attractive to all
sexes and made passes at her, of course. They all made passes at
her: at parties, in clubs, when she modeled for them. One night
in Greenwich Village, even Allen Ginsberg made a pass at her, before he
was sure of his sexual orientation.
I was suspicious of her stories, so whoever she talked about, I looked up in the library.
Somewhat to my surprise, a lot of them were famous artists of one kind
or another. After a while I began to make fairly educated guesses
as to which of her stories were true, which exaggerations, and which
outright lies. For example, I had no doubt that she attended
parties with the artists, but I don't think she spent much time on the
East End with Jackson and Lee. And I don't think Allen Ginsberg
was ever in much doubt about his sexual orientation. I have
evidence that she did live with Robert Outrey and supported him for
several years. Later, when I was doing my research, I found
a snapshot of a bunch of them in a brick-walled club. Alina was
in the photo, leaning an elbow on Outrey's shoulder. He was
sitting, probably because he was too drunk to stand, and Alina's face
was partially obscured by cigarette smoke. Her hair was black,
her stance defiant and glamorous.
What she did lie about,
though, was Robert Outrey's genius. He was an artist; he was part
of the scene; but there has never been an article about him in any
edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I know, because I started
writing papers on the Abstract Expressionists in high school and did a
senior thesis in college called "Robert Outrey: Struggles of a Third
Rate Artist." I used him in my graduate work too, and I claim at
least some responsibility for the rise in value of his oeuvre.
Actually, I like his work now, especially the little constructions of
scrap metal in the form of bottomless sail boats and lunging
beds. My Ph.D. thesis and subsequent books on creativity have
been increasingly kind to him. In Robert Outrey and the Cult of
Genius, I included a paragraph about Alina as the prototype of the
young women who immolated themselves on the altar of real and imagined
Alina died before the Outrey revival. In fact, I
was still a teenager when she died, so she never guessed that I would
do scholarly work at all. It would have pleased her enormously to
know that she influenced me so much. She would have told people
that Rosemary's entire career was really just a reaction to her, Alina
* * *
One diffusely bright
Saturday in winter, I went to Alina's early to tell her that I had a
job. There was more light in her living room than I had ever seen
there. The stacks of boxes appeared to have been shifted around, and
clouds of tissue paper clung lightly to the floor. In the extra
light, I saw that Alina's hair was gray around her face and only black
at the ends.
"A job?" she said. "What kind of job?"
Donuts in the middle of town? I know that place. Pink
plastic. And their specialty is chocolate donuts.
"Not chocolate, Devils Food."
"Donuts should be brown with a touch of powdered sugar or cinnamon!"
"They have those too."
"And now I suppose we won't be seeing you again."
still going to walk Schatzie. At least until you get someone
else. I only got the job yesterday, so I don't even know if it's
going to work out. It's no big deal."
That was a
lie. I had hardly been able to sleep thinking about it.
There had been a boy drinking coffee and eating a cruller when I
applied for the job. He had watched me talk to the manager, so he
might have overheard that I was coming back today. I was full of
vague excitement that mixed the handsome boy and the fried sweet smell.
"I had hoped for more for you," said Alina. "You don't have to waitress."
sound like my mother. My mother thinks I've de-classed
myself. I'm looking forward to it! I get a uniform with a
"A pink apron! A precious little pink apron!"
had tried on the uniform several times at home, and even though it was
utterly unstylish, there was something sexual about the way it
fit. When I wore it, I imagined I was playing a nurse in a film,
and someone kept unbuttoning the bodice. Even if the boy never
came back and there was only selling donuts and coffee, that felt
sexual too after all these months of loneliness at Apple Lake Estates.
startled me by almost understanding: "You think this is a big
adventure. You think putting on an apron and going to work is big
fun. You'd feel different, you know, if you had to work! If
you had come to New York at the age of sixteen passing for twenty in
the middle of the war and if you didn't get a job you couldn't afford a
place to sleep! I had every crummy job there was and sometimes
three in the same day. Oh, I had jobs, believe you me, I had
jobs. I would have given my eye teeth for the life you live."
"If you think my life is so great, why are you always saying mean things about teens today?"
"Because we were better! We knew about working to survive and working for art! That was much, much better!"
marched out the door with Schatzie. When I got back, I
meant to grab the shopping bag with the pink dress and leave, but Alina
had herself made tea and set the tray on the ottoman, a cup for her, a
cup for me.
I said, "I have to go to work."
"You have time for tea. You have to change into your uniform, don't you? I'd like to see how you look."
"You'll make fun of me."
"Oh, you take me too seriously," she said. "Change into your uniform."
"Where should I change?"
"Any room you like."
went to the kitchen. I thought of the other rooms as her private
rooms. I had never, for example, used her bathroom. I think
I would have squatted in the bushes with Schatzie before I went into
"Well, well," she said when I came out.
"Turn around. Very nice. Let me fix your apron." She
retied, adjusted it. I could feel her carefully spreading each
side of the bow. "There now," she said. "Yes. Just as
I suspected. A figure! I would never have guessed from
those loose sweat shirts you wear. Outrey would have wanted to
undress you, of course. Oh, don't be naive. Do you think
they cared if you were a minor? They considered themselves beyond
and above the law. Sit down, drink your tea."
"I don't want to be late."
"What time are you supposed to be there?"
"Well, actually I wanted to be early."
on your first day. You want to be very careful about the
precedent you set. Listen to me about waitressing. I know
"This isn't tables. It's a counter."
difference! You want to be precisely on time, to the dot, but
certainly not early, because they'll read that as eagerness and exploit
you. I have had jobs in manufacturing, restaurants, small shops,
large department stores. I did the modeling because even though
the money was bad, I craved the atmosphere. Outrey's studio had
horrible leaks in the ceiling, paint that looked like boiling oil, all
over the ceiling. The part that was tin had come loose so there
were these big curling sheets. He had rags in the broken panes,
and the stool I sat on was all covered with paint, I mean the actual
stool looked like Pollock had done it. This wasn't romantic,
though, believe me. This was the serious work of making
art. Have some more tea. Let me tell you what Outrey was
I sat on the edge of the velvet chair. "I don't want to be late, either."
"Of course you don't want to be late! I don't want you to be late."
"I didn't think those guys used models anyhow," I said. "I thought they only did abstract stuff."
what do you think abstract is? Abstract is taking the essence of
what is before your eyes and flinging it across your canvas."
I said, "Did you really pose naked? I don't think I could do that."
that body of yours? With that shape, and your health?
Little girl, I would burn down the world for six months in your
body. Of course you would pose naked, if a genius asked
you. If Robert Outrey asked you."
I said, "He wasn't as famous as the other ones."
"Nonsense. What makes you so sure?"
"Sometimes I look up people you talk about."
She snorted, but tipped her head at me from a new angle.
"Books! They get it all wrong. The others were just better
at self-promotion. It's a separate skill, and Outrey never
mastered it, in fact he disdained it. You see, you're getting an
education from being around me. Robert Outrey could have been
more famous than all of them. He had the temperament of a genius,
he bubbled with it, like his goddam ceiling. I sat there naked
and felt the heat of him as he worked! Sometimes he welded wire and
metal as he looked at my breasts. Can you imagine that?
Seeing yourself embodied in metal? Of course you can't."
I said, "You could have been an artist too."
Her hand suddenly shook, her cup rattled in its saucer. "My
vocation was to support him. I gave him everything! I gave
him the money I earned from my measly little jobs! Whatever he
was, it was because of me! And I never resented a minute of it!"
I been older, I might have asked, Then why do you sound so resentful
now? But I was not quite fifteen and wearing a pink uniform, so I
said, "Was he your boyfriend? I mean, like, your first
She got both hands around her tea cup and stopped the shaking. "I
don't think he even knew I was a virgin. He was too drunk the
first time to notice. But, after all, virginity is nothing,
a little piece of skin. What was important was that I worshiped
at his flame. If he got drunk, I worshiped him. If he went with
other women, I stayed awake till he came home. If he sold his
work to inferior dealers, I took another job to make up the
difference." She shook her head, quiet at last. "Such
a waste. You'd better get to work. When will you be back?
Schatzie can't do without you, you know."
two weeks I went to Alina's and to Devilish Donuts. But when they asked
me to take more hours at the donut place, I started making other
arrangements for Alina. I would go in the morning before school,
or I'd get my mother or my sister to go.
Alina declared I was
deserting her. "You're as bad as a man," she said. "I give
you my best. I tell you everything, and you don't come around
"I come almost every day!"
"You don't. You send substitutes. Your sister drags Schatzie where she doesn't want to go."
come more often," I said, but I was only trying to get away.
There was a boy I was expecting see. A different boy from the one
I saw the first day, but even more interesting. He lived in a
less expensive town a few miles away and delivered pizzas in a
Chevrolet junker as big as a boat. He was three years older than
I was and had dropped out of school because his teachers didn't like
"Schatzie whimpers and whines," said Alina, "and you don't care."
* * *
The last time I went to Alina's, she called me at work.
"Phone call for Rosemary," said the manager. "You know you aren't supposed to take personal calls."
phone was next to the coffee machine, so everyone could hear.
When I realized who it was, I said in a loud voice, "I'm not allowed to
take personal calls!"
She sounded hoarse. "You were supposed to be here hours ago."
"My sister is coming today."
"Your sister! I wouldn't let her walk the dog. I threw her out. The dog went on the floor!"
told you yesterday I couldn't come. I told you they wanted me
early. Why didn't you let my sister do it? Call someone
else. Call my mother."
"No one is answering! I
wouldn't bother you at your Place of Business if I could get someone
else. Schatzie is going to pop."
"You said she
already--" The manager and the other counter girl were staring at
me. There were customers. "You said she already went."
"Please," said Alina. "Something bad is going to happen."
"I'll try to come," I said. "As soon as I can. Okay?"
looked at the others. "It's my grandmother," I said. "She's
sick, and there's no one around. She's scared of dying
alone." The manager offered to let me go a little early. I
said, "It's just that she's really old."
Yeah, they all said, old people get like that.
* * *
never locked her door. It was one of the things that I secretly
admired about her. Other older women I knew, even my mother and
her friends who were not nearly as old as Alina, could spend whole
conversations on alarm systems and how you don't dare drive into the
city anymore. But on one of my earliest visits, I had asked Alina
if I should ring the bell when Schatzie and I got back, and she
answered, "The door is always open. If anyone cares to rob this house,
they'll be disappointed. I sold everything that could be
transferred into cash."
"But," I said, "What about--"
"The Evil that lurks in the hearts of Men?" said Alina. "That, my dear child, is not the Death that Stalks Me."
liked that phrase so much that I said it to the people at Devilish
Donuts when they asked me if I wasn't afraid of walking up the hill to
Apple Lake by myself after work. I said, "If you're referring to
Rape and Murder, that is not the Death that Stalks Me."
I was not surprised to find Alina's door unlocked that night. It
was well after dark, windy and raw with black rain, but there were no
lights on. Schatzie came waddling from between two stacks of
magazines, nuzzled my ankles, and stood very quiet.
"Alina?" I said. "I'm here now."
had no idea where the overhead light switch was, or even if there was
one. The only source of light I was sure of was the lamp by her
chair, so I made my way by touch with Schatzie staying close, getting
in my way. I stumbled against the ottoman, knelt on it, and found
the light chain.
She was wedged between the ottoman and the
chair, face down on the floor. A hump of black knit, tipped over,
head partially covered by a shawl. My voice started going "Oh oh
oh" and I felt an emptiness: nothing to go by, no previous example.
there didn't seem to be any hurry. Everything oddly relaxed, as
if the excitement was over. I squatted by her head.
groaned, and I pulled the shawl back off her face a little. One
cheek was on the gritty flat weave of the carpet, and there was
something dark and flaky under her nose. Her eyelids
flicked. Schatzie nuzzled at her and did a little vertical leap
"Alina," I said. "Who did this?" I had
seen too many TV movies. Even as I said it, I looked around, and
saw that the only unusual things were no lights and Alina on the floor.
Her eyes opened, and she gave me a little smile, then closed them again.
sorry I'm late," I said. "I was at work. Should I walk
Schatzie? Do you want tea?" As I said each thing, its total
inappropriateness struck me, and I moved a little closer to what I
really should do. I said, "Do you want to get up in your chair?"
of her strange sleepy smiling, she extended her hand and caught
mine. She held me tightly, saying nothing. Schatzie grunted
and lay down. I got more comfortable, folded my legs. The
three of us stayed there a while. Schatzie and Alina seemed
happy, and I felt useful.
After awhile, though, I noticed the
telephone lying on the floor off its hook. I had no trouble
reaching it with my free hand, and I put it back in the cradle.
It occurred to me that I ought to use it. I didn't even have to
let go of Alina to make the call.
I gave the phone a few
seconds to get a dial tone, then called Emergency 911. "Hello," I
said to the dispatcher. "I'm at Alina Konefsky's house. I'm
her neighbor. But I'm at her house now. She's collapsed on
the floor, and I think she needs a doctor."
They wanted my name, my address, Alina's address.
not dying or anything," I said, "She just collapsed on the floor, kind
of sleeping." By this time, I was perfectly calm, mature and
efficient. This was better than picking out the customers'
crullers and Boston creams.
After 911, I called home. My father answered. "Dad?" I said. "Listen, Alina Konefsky is sick."
"I'd better get your mother," he said.
My mother panicked. "Oh honey honey!" she cried. "Are you all right? I'll be right over--can you stand it?"
"Everything's under control, Mom."
all came at once, my family, the neighbors, the emergency car. Alina
let go my hand when they put her on the stretcher. I took
Schatzie for a walk and then back to my house.
* * *
never went back to the cottage. She had had a stroke.
Another stroke, my mother told me, not the first one. She had a dozen
things wrong with her. I didn't understand why no one had told me
all this. My mother said they had told me.
I visited her
in the hospital, where her hair was out at angles, and she wore a
hospital gown with tiny pale flowers and a striped robe. Her
speech was slurred, but her eyes glittered, and she demanded to know
why I had been so slow coming to her that night.
"All you said
on the phone was that something bad was going to happen! I
thought you meant Schatzie was going to poop on the floor again."
didn't know," Alina hissed. "I didn't know what was going to
happen." She thrashed under her covers and seemed to want to kick
me. "I'm going to blame you," she said. "If this is
the end of my independent living, I lay it on your head!"
astounded at her unfairness. She seemed to have no memory of how
happily we had sat on the floor that night. "I'm a teenager!" I
"Especially because you're a teenager!" She made a
fist. "Oh, I would like to kill something! You don't know
what it's like! You don't know anything!"
"You were nicer when you were sicker," I said.
she cried. "Nice! Oh my God! Nice! Well, you've
already got my dog. You always liked her better than me
anyhow. Take anything you want out of the house. Take my
jewelry, not that it's worth anything. Take the magazines if you
need them for one of your stupid school projects. There are lots
of pictures of volcanoes."
"I'm in high school," I said. "We don't cut out pictures from magazines."
"The Outrey!" she said. "If I don't go back there, the little Outrey on the mantle is yours."
"The one that looks like a boat? I don't like it."
eyes blistered. "I don't care if you like it. It is your
legacy. When they finally recognize him and do his retrospective
at the Museum of Modern Art, you'll be rich. That's
all. Go away now."
My very last visit to Alina was in the nursing home. In the
nursing home, she was nice again. Someone had cut and curled her
hair, so that even though she was wearing her own housecoat, she looked
exactly like the other people there. She didn't talk. She
just smiled sweetly and clutched my hand, released the pressure, then
she died, I always kept the Outrey on my desk. For a while, in
college, I stuck it in a pan of dirt and tried to grow ivy on it.
second thing Alina left me was an image of death that still seems true,
and far from unbearable: soft and heavy at the end of a long afternoon,
with its eyes closed, a sweet smile, and a relentless grip.
Meredith Sue Willis
is a native of West Virginia who has lived and worked in the Northeast
for many years. "Tales of the Abstract Expressionists" will be
appearing in her latest collection of stories due out this summer from Hamilton Stone Editions. For more information www.MeredithSueWillis.com.