- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Max fried stepped over the threshold. He set down his navy-blue beret on a gleaming Formica surface and surveyed his new residence. His last, was it not? Its kitchen glistened whitely; every fixture ready and waiting, deceptively virginal. Neatness he liked, but this was antiseptic, reeking already of the purity of the beyond.
All along the counters at arm level he found chrome rails that recalled the hospital from which he had been ejected less than an hour ago. Stuffed in a taxi by his delectable Puerto Rican nurse, Carmela Velasquez, after a month of wry verbal dalliance, and carried to this four-story beige brick building of recent and styleless design—Pleasure Knolls Semi-Service Apartments for Senior Citizens. The knoll was a mild, well-groomed slope on which the building sat in a posture of apathy, uncheered by a warm late-October sun. Max's predilections were urban; driving up the Sawmill River Parkway, he had observed with loathing the wide swatches of Westchester green, buffer zones between clutches of low-roofed commerce. But aesthetics were a luxury at his age. He had no choice, they told him: his heart would not survive another city mugging. Dr Small had arranged everything. Too kind.
'I can assure you, Mr Fried, it's no nursing home. It's a health-related facility. You'll have your own apartment and all the privacy you want. But there's a trained professional staff, and you can get meals prepared if you like. It's more comfort than you've had, and not expensive either. You're lucky they had an opening.'
'Yes, I suppose some poor fool dropped dead.'
Dr Small cracked his knuckles loudly. 'Our social worker, Miss Tilley, went out of her way to find this for you.'
Thank you too, Miss Tilley. He opened a canary-yellow cabinet. Smooth white plates, cups, soup bowls—service for four. No wild parties expected, obviously. He advanced to the living room: all suitably autumnal, brown and orange, squarish chaste sofa, wing chair and ottoman with matching rug. Landscape with grazing cattle hanging on the wall. As he stood up on the ottoman to take it down, he could almost touch the low ceiling. Big windows overlooked the back lawn, west, giving good afternoon light—the plants, at least, would thrive. Traffic curled on skeins of road in the middle distance, too far off to be noisy. He drew the curtains and moved along through a doorway. A broad double bed! What did they expect? The decorator, with a burst of unprecedented abandon, had chosen a crazy-quilt spread in hues of bright red and blue and purple. A setting for merriment. Well, it was a comfortable bedroom, unobjectionable, and better than he had had most of his life. He tossed his jacket on to the bed before proceeding to the bathroom, which, offering a medley of orthopedic devices, reminded him of the physical therapy room he used to pass, strolling through the hospital corridors. Hollowed-out people in faded bathrobes doing peculiar exercises; gleaming chrome and wincing faces. He would look away, remembering other antics—ropes and bars and wires, nimble bodies defying the rigidities of bone. He might be shuffling through a corridor in bedroom slippers, but once, oh once, he wanted to shout in protest, he had cavorted on a tightrope in trim silver shoes and been mad for a woman. He did tell Carmela, about the tightrope, not the woman, and she said coolly that she was not surprised; she could see it in the muscles. And for all his joking innuendos, she had managed to embarrass him.
Now he shoved aside a few movable bars near the toilet. Thank God he could still piss without this contraption. Welcome, the inaugural piss.
In the living room armchair, he nudged off his shoes and put his feet up on the ottoman. At eye level, six feet off, waited an empty TV screen. Was this his future, then night after night falling asleep in the chair, burning cigar holes in the rug, stumbling at last, sleepily, on to the therapeutic mattress? Man acclimates. Not to raging hunger, though. Where was his future grocery store? The smiling information lady downstairs, peppy as a wind-up toy, had promised to tell him everything he needed to know. A large order, he had retorted. Very well; soon he would give her an opportunity to be useful. Meanwhile, he closed his eyes.
He was wakened by a knock on the door. He knew no one, wanted no one, yet there stood a woman built on the grand scale, draped into bright-yellow print, with curly gray-blond hair circling a capable face.
A prettiness mellowed by experience. She looked him over; he made a slight bow.
'I'm your next-door neighbor. My name is Lettie Blumenthal and I came to say you can always come in for a cup of tea. I like to be on good terms with my neighbors. Provided, of course, you're a decent sort of person.'
'Come in, come in, Lettie Blumenthal.' Max shook her hand, large but oddly delicate. 'Thank you for your invitation, which I accept immediately, as soon as I put my shoes back on. I assure you I am a decent sort of person.'
She stepped inside and gazed around his living room. 'Why is the painting on the floor?'
'Have a seat, please.' His breath faltered when he bent over to tie the laces. Always, so he couldn't for a minute forget. 'My painting is down because its theme did not suit my sensibilities. I prefer a human scene. Cows, I've never felt any rapport with. Do you know what I mean?'
Her knees moved apart; as she smiled, her face broke into furrows, miraculously becoming a face he could talk to. 'I know exactly what you mean. I was a city person too. In fact, I'll tell you right off—I was a chorus girl, way back when. Can you believe it?' She was laughing heartily now. 'But in the year I've lived here it never occurred to me to take the cows off the wall.'
He laughed in return and studied her more closely. Under the mass were good bones. Her features were fine also, shrewd and firm, with light, clever eyes. He walked over to where she sat solidly on the sofa like a flowering plant, and extended his hand once again: 'Max Fried, trapeze artist and all-round stunt man, decent and ravenous. Would you have, in addition to the tea, a sandwich?'
'My kitchen is overflowing.'
Hunger appeased, Max spent a good quarter of an hour in the late afternoon reading the orderly bulletin board opposite the welcomer's desk. From time to time he glanced surreptitiously at Mrs Cameron to see if she was observing him. She was, equally surreptitious, but less hostile.
'We have a men's group, Mr Fried,' she ventured at last, 'that meets twice a week for a Great Ideas of Western Man discussion.'
'Thank you,' said Max. 'I am not in quest of great ideas.'
'Perhaps if you could tell me whether you're interested in something specific ...'
'If I knew what I was looking for, Mrs Cameron, I would be out finding it. I know better what I do not want. I am reading for enlightenment, to get an impression of the texture of life in this community, henceforth my own, for better or worse, till death do us part.' That did the trick. Mrs Cameron bent her head quickly back over her Newsweek.
The prospects were staggering: a Dramatics Group, currently doing a Jerome Kern retrospective, pinochle and poker games, jewelry-making, needlepoint, Chinese cooking, Introductory Spanish (no need; he had had that in the hospital), watercolor painting, woodworking. A man could waste months in self-improvement. He jotted down the hours and locations of the poker games and was about to give up, when a three-by-five card in a low corner caught his eye. 'SENIOR CITIZENS,' in easy-to-read block letters. 'Volunteer positions open in Roosevelt Junior High. Share your skills with children.' He copied the address. Skills he had in abundance, but he wanted them to pay.
As he tucked the slip of paper into his breast pocket a siren whined just outside, rising to a horrendous pitch before it trailed off. He turned back to the desk—this time she was frankly scrutinizing him. 'Ambulance?'
'Police,' she said, and smiled. 'They're just a block away. You'll get used to it.'
'I suppose I have no choice. Now, Mrs Cameron, there is something you can help me with.'
She rose, levitated by eagerness. 'Yes, Mr Fried?'
'I require a grocery store.'
'Oh, yes. Just around the corner on the right, across the street and down half a block, is the supermarket. It's open till seven. We've also got a bus every morning at ten that goes to the main shopping center. You can have a nice leisurely lunch there—a lot of people do that. But for now, we have several shopping carts available, if you'd like one.'
Her lust to assist charged the quiet air, depressing Max. 'Isn't there a plain dingy grocery, the kind with old cornflakes and a numbers game in the back, where I can get canned enchiladas and brush away a couple of roaches?'
'Mr Fried, the supermarket has everything you could possibly want.'
'Not everything, Mrs Cameron. But no doubt an elegant sufficiency. All right, lead me to a shopping cart.'
She opened a closet. 'You sound like a highly educated man, Mr Fried.'
'Hardly. I am an autodidact.'
She hesitated, as though it might be an arcane perversion. 'A what?'
'Self-taught. Little formal schooling. I left home at a tender age—an old, old story.'
'That sounds interesting. Perhaps you could give a talk one Friday night to the Fruits of Life Experience Group.' Behind the thick glasses her lashes fluttered like moths in their final agonies.
Max spun the cart around on one wheel with the tip of his right forefinger. He twirled his cane in a series of elaborate flourishes and bowed. As he opened the front door he flicked his head back over his shoulder. Her face was glassy, open-mouthed. 'Who wants to lecture to a bunch of fruits?' he called, and fled.
On his return he stopped to knock at the door next to his own. When Lettie opened, he thrust at her an enormous bunch of green grapes. 'Seedless.'
Her surprise lasted only an instant; she took them and tilted her head to bite off two. 'They're delicious.' She gave him a curious glance. 'Thank you. But you really didn't have to.'
'My pleasure. Well.' Max tipped the cart into motion, then turned back. 'Look, I bought a bottle of Scotch—come on and have some with me. I've just got these few things to put away first.' He could hardly believe himself; that hadn't been the plan at all. The plan had been merely the grapes, so he wouldn't need to feel indebted.
She came along readily. She was an excellent woman—helped him shelve his groceries and drank her Scotch like a pro. It was he who couldn't meet the demands of the occasion. Halfway through the second bag he faltered.
'You know something?' he said to her. 'Why don't we stop and sit down for a while? To tell the truth, I'm a little tired. I must have walked too fast.'
'You sit down,' said Lettie. She waved him to the living room, brandishing a head of lettuce. 'Go ahead, I'll finish. Next time why don't you have them deliver?'
He sat obediently and put his feet up. Listening to her snapping cabinet doors and crumpling bags, he was mortified. He felt as if he were made of paper, not flesh. Parchment—if he moved, if she so much as touched him, he might crackle and turn to dust.
'I'm leaving the door open on purpose,' she said on her way out. 'I'll be back with something.'
In less than ten minutes she reappeared bearing a tray. 'It's nearly seven-thirty, Max. You're not going to start cooking.'
Watching her, lush in her bright yellow and setting down her thick aromatic soup with a steady grace of motion, he had to acknowledge that, even in decline, there were some sights worth hanging around for. 'Maybe you'd like the TV, Max? Good Times is on tonight. A very nice Negro family. You'll enjoy it.'
He gave in.
'You don't need me to stay, do you? I guess you'd rather be alone now.'
He nodded; the amenities were too much effort. No way to treat a lady, but he would make up for it later. After the soup he turned off the TV. A nice family indeed, though far too good to be true, with all that tender love, that fine consideration, amid poverty—not at all what he remembered of poverty. He undressed: a disgrace for a grown man to go to bed at eight-thirty. Sitting on the bed, he looked at his pale legs, luckily still strong enough to have gotten him back here. Flying and balancing had kept his flesh hard and compact, if not his heart. In the tumbling acts and the pyramids he used to stand in the second tier. He was not heavy enough to be on the bottom—the support down there was Henry Cook, who resembled a large ape. Max would leap from the highest seesaw and do a double somersault in the air, hugging his knees tight and concentrating on the center inside him, where Susie taught him to imagine a core of white light. He would compress all his energy around this light, which flashed a sustaining beam as he soared through the air, then land on the hairy shoulders of Henry Cook and uncurl his spine to the sound of applause. Four more drumrolls, four bars of ascending music, and Freddie Case came dropping on him like a bag of cement. Freddie never fully mastered his balance. After the thud he would teeter, and Max had to grip his ankles with reassuring fingers till Freddie stopped wobbling. One terrible day Freddie Case fractured his hip falling on Max. They gave him a paperwork job, keeping track of bookings. Max had to force himself to look Freddie in the eye, though Susie and everyone said it wasn't his fault.
He had done it all in his time, walked the wire, tumbled, juggled. Brandon Brothers was too small a circus to afford specialists; they changed costumes hastily in a screened-off corner of the tent, giving the illusion of a host of performers. Except he had never fooled with the animals, never developed any feeling for them. And he didn't clown, only that one time when they put him in to replace John Todd, groaning in his trailer with a wretched case of poison ivy. He bombed. He did what he had seen John do countless times—set off firecrackers, dropped his pants, shook the paper flower that became a dragon then a bird then a flower again. Polite applause but no big laughs. He didn't have it in him. Susie confirmed it later. 'Since you asked for the truth, Max, you were dead.' He was a young man, oh, maybe forty. Susie loved him. They were outside on the damp grass after dinner. He lay flat on his back puffing on a cigar, watching clouds. 'I know I was dead. But what did I do wrong?' 'Nothing in particular. You just weren't funny. A clown is born that way. Not you—you're no comic.' Susie lay down on the grass beside him. She had red hair that circled her face like a halo of fire.
He was too tired to make up his new double bed. Drowsing, he lay back and instantly slept. He dreamed he was on the wire, climbing uphill to Susie waiting for him high on the platform, her public smile a gleam of red and white. She wore blue spangles, glittering, glittering, and pretended for the crowd to be smiling encouragement at Max, while they both knew he cared for nothing but the pressure of the air around him, the feel of the wire beneath is foot, the core of white light inside. Susie beckoned; he glanced around. Faces in the crowd burst on his eyes like exploding rockets: Miss Velasquez, Miss Tilley, Mrs Cameron, his older brothers who died in their beds after a lifetime working in the delicatessen. Then he lifted his foot expertly, pointing and reaching for the taut wire. That central place in the cushion of the big toe had to touch first, for an infinitesimal fraction of time; toe, ball, heel. Perfect alignment or there was trouble. He looked up to Susie: her blue spangles reflected the bright light inside him. He took another step, shot a glance at the crowd. Their faces were tense and anxious. Mrs Cameron, Miss Tilley, all of them were shaking their heads. No, Max, no! Susie waved, leaning towards him and stretching out her long slender arms, the drumroll ascended around his ears, somewhere an elephant trumpeted gloomily, and the center of his toe mistook the wire, touched a sixteenth of an inch to the left. He teetered like Freddie Case used to teeter, swung the balance pole, got ready for a hop in the air to try again, better this time, but before he could hop, a fiery pain cut through his chest and upper arm. Susie reached out her arms, her painted smile shriveled to a small O. The crowd rose, gasping mightily. He lost the wire. He fell, and fell and fell.
Excerpted from Balancing Acts by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Copyright © 1981 Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.