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TALES OF THE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISTS BY MEREDITH SUE WILLIS


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.

When 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!"

There 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 you arouse."

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?"

She 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."

"Of 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?"

She 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."

The 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?"

"Sailboat 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 then Schatzie."

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 store."

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."

I 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!"

"The 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."

"You 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.

"The 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."

The leash 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.

We 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.

Alina 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?"

The 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?"

I 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?"

"Well what?"

"Did she do her business?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

"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!"

"I didn't!"

"You 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.


* * *

My 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.

On 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.

Finally 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?"

"Tea."

This time, I made the tea gladly and hovered near while she drank.  I said, "Are you hungry?  Do you want something to eat?"

She 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."

"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."

"I 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.

She 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!"

When 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 Schatzie.


* * *

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 genius.

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 Konefsky.


* * *

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?"

"Devilish Donuts."

"Devilish Donuts in the middle of town?   I know that place.  Pink plastic.  And their specialty is chocolate donuts.  Disgusting."

"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."

"I'm 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."

"You sound like my mother.  My mother thinks I've de-classed myself.  I'm looking forward to it!  I get a uniform with a pink apron!"

"A pink apron!  A precious little pink apron!"

I 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.

Alina 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!"

I 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."

I 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 her bathroom.

"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."

"Not on your first day.  You want to be very careful about the precedent you set.  Listen to me about waitressing.  I know about waitressing."

"This isn't tables.  It's a counter."

"No 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 like."

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."

"Exactly 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."

"With 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." 

"No!"  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!"

Had 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 boyfriend?"

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."

For 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 anymore."

"I come almost every day!"

"You don't.  You send substitutes.  Your sister drags Schatzie where she doesn't want to go."

"I'll 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 him.

"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."

The 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!"

"I 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?"

I 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.


* * *

Alina 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."

I 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."

Therefore 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."

I 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.

But there didn't seem to be any hurry.  Everything oddly relaxed, as if the excitement was over.  I squatted by her head.

"Alina?"

She 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 and yip.

"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.

"I'm 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?"

Out 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.

"She's 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."

They 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.


* * *

Alina 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."

"I 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!"

I was 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 said.

"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.

"Nice!" 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."

Her 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 clutched again.

After 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.

The 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.




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