The man was sturdy as a redwood, and Stephanie thought maybe it was the wrong address, since he looked capable of taking care of himself just fine. He squinted as though he was trying to recognize her. "I'm Stephanie Leonard. I called about the ad for a companion," she said. The man turned away, leaving her on the porch not sure what to do next, until he came back holding hands with a lady wearing a pink suit. She smelled like gardenias. Must be the woman she talked to on the phone, the one who told her fifteen dollars an hour plus Social Security.
"I'm Alice, and this is Hank." The pink lady's voice was happier than called for. "We're delighted you've come," she said, sliding an arm around Stephanie, who tensed. The greeting told her that Alice was needy. Stephanie didn't rely on anyone. Except now, when she needed a job.
She followed them down a hallway, past a dozen or so paintings of different kinds of dancers: couples moving to music that you could almost hear, ballerinas—including one that Stephanie stopped to admire, a single ballet dancer twirling on one foot, her arms outstretched to the sky. They settled in a room where bookcases lined all the walls but for a stone fireplace and glass doors that led out to a garden. She looked around. "This is a nice place."
"Thank you. Hank built this house." Alice motioned a polished hand toward facing leather couches worn soft as old boots. "His company built the finest houses and office buildings in Carson. He's retired now. I still do some writing on legal matters. With someone else to..."
"I built this house," interrupted Hank, "Kept changing plans. Darndest project ever." He chuckled. "I built this house. Darndest project ever," he repeated, like a Talking Elmo toy. Alice kissed the side of his head. They were a funny couple: this lady who looked like she was born with that string of pearls around her neck, and this bear of a man in flannel shirt and scuffed slippers.
Alice poured mint-scented tea. Her stick-thin wrist looked as if it could crack from the weight of the teapot. When she finished serving, she was on to business. "I promised our son that I would give up driving. We have a car to take us to appointments and such. Do you have a valid Nevada license?" Stephanie nodded. Hank got up a couple of times and shuffled down the hall and back. It didn't seem to bother Alice who went over job duties, such as going on walks with Hank and reading him the paper.
The responsibilities didn't sound strenuous, but the ad had requested someone energetic, so Stephanie told about the kickboxing classes. Alice asked about her work experience. "I was laid off from the Golden Casino when it closed. Dealt Twenty-One there for seven years." She looked at Hank. "Did you ever gamble in Golden's?"
"Golden's? I knew the guy, Bucky, Bucky Dalman. He started the place," Hank looked at his wife. "Remember Bucky?" Alice smiled, though she never did say if she remembered Bucky.
Stephanie told about the caregiver job where she helped an elderly man for a year. "He was moody, but I found ways to lighten his heart and make him more optimistic." She had tried. She had decorated his place for all the holidays, but he'd scowled at her efforts; it was the only way he acknowledged her existence. After the soul whipping he gave her, she was never guiltsick about taking his silver coin collection when he was placed in the nursing home.
"You said that reading the paper is part of the job." Stephanie thought she should say something else. "My dad used to read the paper with me every day. That and the racing form. I read about the Breeder's Cup and Belmont Stakes instead of stories about cats in hats." That was a silly thing to say, and again about gambling. She looked away to the bookcases. She knew a guy in Reno who dealt in first editions. Couldn't believe how much you could get for them. She wondered how many were on the old couple's shelves.
"That's a wonderful recollection of your father," said Alice.
"I haven't seen him since I was ten years old. I've got no family to speak of." She didn't plan on saying that, but Alice showed concern, and maybe that would help her land the job. Unemployment ran out weeks ago. She realized she was squeezing the thin teacup hard enough to crack it, so she set it down on its saucer.
"Does your son live in Carson?" Stephanie asked.
"Michael lives in San Francisco." Alice went on about her son. Stephanie was glad to have a break from the spotlight. When Alice stopped to pour more tea, the conversation slowed. The house was too quiet. It was the opposite of the casino, where coins clinked into slot machines and bells clanged. Although, after awhile, she hadn't heard those noises.
Hank was sitting now, and he looked as though he was still trying to place her. "How are you doing?" she asked him.
"Fine. I'm doing fine."
"I like to go for walks at Pond Park. Do you?" Stephanie said, even though she couldn't remember the last time she was there.
"I built the park. I donated the park."
"That was nice of you."
"Evidently," he said.
"Hank follows baseball, football, and basketball on television. Are you a fan of any teams?" asked Alice.
"Grew up a Dodgers fan." The only thing constant with her mother's husbands was that they all followed the Dodgers.
"The Brooklyn Dodgers moved. Dardest thing. They moved," said Hank.
"I didn't follow them then." She was thirty-three.
Stephanie asked if he had played any sports and he told her about a college football game that ended when his rival fumbled on the twenty and Hank picked up the ball and ran eighty yards down a muddy field for the winning touchdown. He said it as though it had happened last week.
"You were the hot jock," she teased. He put on the charm, in an old-man sort of way.
Alice sat back. She didn't join in the jabber. After a while she told Stephanie that she was glad she'd come for the position and asked her to fill out a form, including references.
"No problem," said Stephanie. "For the casino, I had to do a fingerprint check." She knew her record was clean. The under-the-table stuff was early on. She had quit before it was discovered.
"There may be times I'd like you to spend the night," said Alice.
Houses like this one can lull people into false security, and Stephanie did not want a situation that would be hard to leave. She planned to move on. "I prefer to sleep at my own place," she said. Alice let the subject drop.
"I can tell that you will be a lovely companion for Hank. You engaged him, and he responded. Others we interviewed did not connect."
On the drive back, she thought about Alice's tenderness with Hank and his Captain Kangaroo-like face and all of those books; they had their own freakin' library. She liked to read. That was the one thing she got from Dad. Funny, until today she hadn't thought of him for ages, how she would sit with him by the Truckee River, and he'd pull out a couple bags of M&M's and they'd read a story. Then he'd say, Well, I think we can make up a better one, and he'd start and she'd add to it, then him, back and forth, till he'd put in something about roses coming to life and going around stabbing people with their thorns, or grizzly bears dressed as old ladies, farting in a church during a wedding. By then the M&M's were gone, and she'd say, The End.
But there was the day in fourth grade. She couldn't wait to show him the A on the book report he had helped her write, about Anne of Green Gables. He didn't come home that day, or any other. Her mother married again, three times. But they left too. The last one about the time Mom got sick.
A car honked and Stephanie turned with the green arrow. Her neighbor, Earlene was standing by a bus stop, all six feet of her. Stephanie gave her a lift.
"Got anything yet?" asked Earlene.
"I'm going to read the newspaper to a grown man and take him for walks."
"Won't take long to read him the paper. They're getting skinnier and skinnier."
"Yeah. They're dying, just like this town. I'm moving to Vegas."
"That place'll turn you into a whore in no time," said Earlene. "Took me so long to get my own self back. You don't know you need your soul till it's gone." Earlene had packed on some pounds, but still had an exotic beauty. Her mahogany skin looked Pledge-polished, and when she strutted down the street, you just knew she wore silk panties.
Stephanie merged onto the highway. "This job's just a stopover while I work out my moving."
Earlene laughed. "Here we go."
"Those places that you're always goin' to tomorrow, or the day after, and you never do. You use 'em like a wall to keep people out, like that tall guy with the dimples who used to make you French toast in the mornin'. Now there was a good man. He was crazy for you, and you scared him off with all the talkin' about movin' to New York."
"He was likely to wander off, just like my cat, Harley."
"Must be nice to know things so surely," said Earlene.
The car bumped down the gravel road into the Desert View Mobile Home Park, where they each had a place. "Anyway, this nice old couple lives alone in a mansion. They're still sweet on each other, even though his attic's empty."
"I should have never shown you that coin collection."
"Don't get huffy with me. I'd have done the same. You will again too, if you need to."
The first few weeks that Stephanie worked for the couple, the three of them walked together. To a passerby, she could fit in as family since she had Alice's pastel skin, Hank's broad body, and averaged the distance in height between them. Hank stopped to point to houses and buildings that he said he built. The next day, it was the same thing. Alice, would say, "Looks well built" or pat him on the back. After she dropped out of the strolls, Stephanie and Hank started each morning singing a version of On The Road Again, twisting lyrics with stuff they made up. He still pointed out places he'd built, but it was like the background noise in the casino. She nicknamed him Captain.
One day Stephanie talked Alice into playing hooky from her writing to join them on a trip to the River Walk in Reno. They shared the walkway with joggers, strollers, dogs of all sizes, a couple of baton-twirling women, and a man with a parrot on his shoulder. The sun was brilliant and cheerfulness unavoidable. Kayakers splashed through drop-pools on the river's whitewater course.
"I used to do that," said Hank.
"Did you get wet?" asked Stephanie.
When he went down to sit by the river's edge, Stephanie asked Alice if he used to kayak.
"No, dear, but don't tell him." She winked. Stephanie had gotten use to Alice's subtle ways of protecting Hank. She wanted to know how they met. Alice told of lobbying for unions when she and Hank crossed paths. "He opposed me till he proposed."
Worked for unions? She's tougher than she looks, thought Stephanie.
"He was a wonderful dancer. Still is," said Alice. "How about you?"
"I almost got married once. He was a terrible dancer." At least she figured he was. They never danced. Show me one marriage that really worked, she thought. Well, maybe Alice and Hank. But they got married late.
"You never say much about yourself," said Alice.
"Not much to tell. Spent my time just trying to survive. My mom, when she was alive, used to say that we were desert people; dry and cracked from a harsh life."
"When the desert blooms, it is stunning. You are glorious, Stephanie, inside and out."
Alice's words rolled over her like a pretty song. She didn't want to put them down, which was her instinct. "Thank you," Stephanie said, closed her eyes, lifted her face up to the sun, and enjoyed the moment.
She'd been working for the couple several months when one morning she got to The Captain's Place, as she called it, and saw a near familiar man sitting at the kitchen table with a laptop open before him.
"You must be Michael."
"And you are Stephanie. I expected you to appear with wings and have a blindingly bright halo."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
"You don't disappoint anyone around here." He had a wide, perfect-tooth smile, but it didn't look snake-oil salesman on him. "You've worked out great. Mother tells me about the calming effect you have on Dad." Stephanie shrugged. Inside she was smiling. "I've noticed a change with Mother, too, more spirited, like she used to be. I hope you're happy with the arrangement."
She looked at his big ears. Sure was a younger Hank. "Your parents are nice; treat me better than anywhere I've worked." She swung her arm around. "And this place, it's great." Despite that, there was that invisible rope tethering her to her self-imposed rule: Don't get rooted to people or places. "I just don't know how long I'll be staying in Carson."
"Sorry to hear that," he said.
Michael left the next day, but she thought he was a good son; he cared about Alice and Hank. That happens with families like theirs: They eat their vegetables, keep in touch because they want to, and don't yell at each other. They can be like that because they don't have to worry about how long they go before replacing the windshield that has a crack making its way across the window.
The seasons drifted over and snow spread across the Sierra. Alice hunkered in her home office meeting a deadline, and Stephanie, as she did occasionally, agreed to stay overnight. She poked the logs in the fireplace until they hissed heat into the room. She found a basketball game for Hank to watch while she fixed supper.
"What's the name of the coach I liked so much?" he asked.
"Red Auerbach," she said.
I used to play for him."
"Bet you made a lot of baskets."
When Stephanie returned with a bowl of chili, Hank was gone, and the open front door was welcoming dried leaves across the parquet floor. She walked around the yard and down the street calling, Captain. She hurried through the neighbor's garden that trailed off to the street behind, yelling Hank. She dashed back inside. Alice joined the search. When they were sure he was not in the house or neighborhood, Alice worked the phones and Stephanie drove every route she and Hank had walked, and some they never did. At Comma Coffee, a posse of regulars went out searching for him. Damn December days got dark too early to see a lost man. She ran through parks till her lungs felt frozen from gasping cold air. When she spotted a lone figure lying on a bench, silhouetted in the moonlight, she yelled "Captain?"
"Yeah," replied the figure. He was motionless.
She raced up to him. A man with a stubbly beard and a boozehound's breath looked up at her. It was not her Captain.
When she got back to the house, two officers were there. "What was he wearing?" Alice asked her.
"He had his yellow Jack Nicklaus golf shirt on. The fire made the room hot and he took off his sweater. Jesus, he must be freezing."
Alice believed that the officers would find Hank. Stephanie was baptized by life and did not hold to any other faith, so she retraced her search. When she returned to the house, Alice was standing at the window, holding on to the pulled-back sheers as though they were keeping her upright. Stephanie led her to the couch. The phone rang and Alice jerked to reach it. It was a neighbor who had knocked on every door in the area, with no luck. Alice's eyes went damp. She took Stephanie's fleshy hands into her veiny ones. "Let's pray."
"I usually curse at God, so I think he'd listen more to you."
Soon, headlights beamed in through the window. They saw the police car and raced to the door. The officers had found him. Actually, a custodian at the state office building found him. "He must have gotten in before they locked up. He said that he built the place and was checking on it."
They had a wander alarm installed the next day.
It was a sunny morning when Stephanie drove the couple to the airport for a trip to see their son. Alice talked about Michael. Stephanie asked if he had a wife or a girlfriend or both. She didn't remember it ever mentioned.
"Our Michael is gay."
"And that's all right with you?" As soon as the words were out of her mouth she wanted to grab them and cram them back down her throat.
Alice went on about Michael this and Michael that. "Because he doesn't pretend, he can't always tell when someone else is not truthful. That trips him up sometimes. He and David, his partner, are a good team. David's lively. On our last visit, he took us on a tour of chocolatiers. We made our own truffles and had cocoa powder all over us. We were delicious. Lord knows what he has arranged this time."
Even though the flight over to San Francisco was only long enough to lift off and touch down, the last time Hank made the trip he was confused afterward, and Stephanie had wondered if it was worth going it again. Now she felt left out because they had a good time without her. God, she needed to move on.
When she got back in the car, she saw a pouch on the floorboard. It contained Alice's jewelry.
Earlene, as she was wont to do, stopped by that night. "Still there? You and the old guy got a thing going? Does he have a lump under his blanket when you tuck him in?"
"Cut it out. They're first class people. They make me feel like I belong with them in white-linen restaurants."
"What's that I hear? Some bricks fallin' out of your people-proof wall?"
"I'm thinking of selling my place, go out to L.A.," said Stephanie.
Earlene picked up the pouch, put on diamond earrings and a pearl necklace. She waved like the queen. "Nice tip."
"Don't get comfortable with them. They go back Monday."
"You were the one last month sayin' you might have to drop health insurance. Or maybe you could slip on the steps in their house and sue. Be set for that new life wherever."
"Didn't you tell me you got your soul back?"
"Whoa there, Miss give-the-gamblers-more-booze-when-they're-winning-so they-leave-bigger-tips. Don't tell me you never thought about keeping this jewelry."
The winter seemed ready to sputter out. House lights got turned on later and daffodils gave pause, for those who noticed. Stephanie hadn't made plans to move. In spite of herself, she began to feel comfortable in the grand house with the old couple.
Alice came downstairs wearing her pale blue suit, matching heels, and her string of pearls, ready to go to a ladies luncheon. Stephanie pointed out the window at the dusting of snow. "Spring was just teasing," she said.
"I should wear boots, but I'll just be outside to come and go." Alice's ride pulled into the drive, and she was out the door. She should have worn the boots.
Stephanie stayed that night and the next three months. Alice had a fractured wrist, and an ankle that might as well have been. Stephanie volunteered, actually insisted, that she take care of Alice. She was strong enough to lift the tiny woman and she knew the way she liked her tea steeped. They added an extra day a week for the cleaning service.
One evening, Hank sang "Goodnight, Irene," again to Stephanie, and waltzed her around the room, like he had with Alice when both of her ankles worked. After the wonderful dancer had gone to bed, she asked, "What was he like, you know, before?"
Alice looked like she was thinking hard. Stephanie though maybe the question was too much. She just wasn't good at saying the right thing.
"Hank was always social...especially with young women." Alice emphasized the last part. "He was self-indulgent." She sat back and took a deep breath. "It's painful to watch him start to disappear before my eyes, but in some ways, the dementia...." she let it trail off.
"The tattoo," Stephanie said. Hank had a heart, with Alice written across it, inked onto his right shoulder. It didn't fit him, or her.
"I had found some telltale signs. He went out and had it done and returned with champagne and roses and new promises."
A man cheating was something that happens more often than not, but that it happened between Hank and Alice startled like a thunderclap. "I thought you guys were...had the perfect marriage."
Alice looked at her. "Perfect?" She shook her head. "Happily ever...much of the time though. Oh, I retreated emotionally for a while, but in the end I let my heart win."
To Stephanie, relationships were fragile. A crack was as good as full breakage; you may as well end it then, rather than stick around to watch it shatter. Especially if you can afford to leave, like Alice.
"You're devoted to Hank, to his care."
"As he would be to mine, if our conditions were reversed."
The ability to repair and redeem love was new territory to ponder.
The evenings followed a pattern that Stephanie slid into like a bird to its nest. After dinner, Hank watched ball games on television, and Alice and Stephanie read and talked about books. Stephanie liked Jane Eyre, but thought it unlikely that Jane would marry Mr. Rochester, because she was an outsider. When she read Bel Canto, she imagined herself one of the characters confined to the mansion in the story, forgetting about being rescued. Stephanie didn't share that thought with Alice. Instead she talked about moving to Los Angeles to be close to the ocean and more opportunities. She said she knew people out there. She didn't mention the other places she had talked about moving to over the years.
Alice's body healed. Michael and David came to help with the spring-cleaning Alice had talked about before her accident. Once they finished sorting and hauling stuff to Goodwill, David, Michael's partner, called for a party.
After they finished take-out from the Thai restaurant, David suggested they needed another bottle of wine and went out to buy it. He came back with a band. Well, it was two guys he might have picked up from an Elvis impersonators' retirement home, and they had a guitar and bass. One of them sang Love Me Tender. Hank and Alice swayed and hummed along. Then the over-the-hill band started a Texas two-step, and David lined up the others to follow, but Stephanie slipped into the kitchen.
She sat at the counter and listened to the laughter and singing of people bonded, happy to be together. Michael peeked in. "We need you. Come on." She shook her head. "I should go on home." I don't belong, she thought. David and Hank's voices joined the musicians for a rowdy On the Road Again.
The noise roared louder through the opening door that Alice pushed with her shoulder as she held her hands to her ears. "No fair, you two are part of this wacky family. Get in here," she said.
Stephanie danced over to Alice, swung her around, and inhaled the scent of gardenias. They followed the music back to Hank, repeating, "And I can't wait to get on the road again."
The next day, Hank and Alice went to San Francisco with Michael. At her own place, Stephanie opened her trunk and got out a box of perennials and set them in the weeds of the stretch of earth in front of her unit. Earlene moseyed over.
"Fixin' up to sell?"
"Alice gave them to me. We split them from her garden."
"Look at you, organic carrots, herbal tea, public radio. You're a mini-Alice, without the money."
Stephanie went back to her car and got another box of plants. Earlene tagged along, and in full view of Stephanie, pulled at a piece of gilded frame that peeked out of its blanket wrapping. She unfolded it. It was the ballerina with her arms outstretched to the sky. Alice had told Stephanie she wanted her to have it, to remind her to remember to dance.
"Is that how your goin' to pay your insurance?" said Earlene. Her smug smile irritated Stephanie.
"She gave it to me as a bonus. She's been paying my health care for months, so don't give me that look. It's insulting to suggest I'd steal from them."
Summer came and went in an uneventful manner and fall seemed like an extension of it. When the World Series started, the owner of the coffee shop brought in a TV for his favorite customer to watch the games. Hank's gait had gotten more awkward but his stories still had swagger. One of the baristas asked Stephanie if Hank had really played for the Yankees.
"Evidently," she answered.
Alice worked at her computer until late afternoons. Hank took to taking a nap around then. It was Stephanie's favorite time, in the garden with Alice. She learned to plant, grow, care for, and arrange flowers. She made bouquets for The Captain's Place, as well as her own, and sometimes even gave one to Earlene. Stephanie liked how flowers brightened places and people. She still talked about going to Los Angeles.
One morning the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee reached her as soon as she opened the mansion's door. "Black or cream?" asked Michael.
"Black is good. Is everything okay?"
"They're still in bed. We got up here late yesterday. Came to help them get ready for the realtor."
"They got called up from the wait list yesterday." He handed her a mug of coffee. "You knew about the place that David found, not far from our condo. It's fabulous, assisted living with all the amenities."
She remembered that Alice told her they looked at a place. But people talk about moving all the time and never do. And here was Michael, with his bold innocence, blurting it out, not even knowing it was hurting her.
"Mother's worried that she's holding you back from your plans; says she will never be able to find another Stephanie after you leave." He patted her shoulder, then let his hand rest there. "She thinks that if you see them settled in a good situation, then you'll feel free to go on with your move." Stephanie sat down at the counter, sipping coffee. "We made a suggestion like this before, but she put it off when she found you."
"When?" she asked.
"They can get in next month. What's your time frame for L.A.?"
"Anytime." She picked up the paper as if she was more interested in it than the conversation.
"She'll miss you terribly. They both will."
The refrigerator hummed. Damn house, it's too quiet. You hear all sorts of sounds that you shouldn't even notice. Without looking back at him, she said, "Since you guys are with them today, and I've got a lot to do, I'll check back later."
She pulled into her space at the Desert View, but stayed in the car. When the sun climbed a little higher in the sky, Earlene came out and sat with her.
"They're leaving me." She told her what happened.
"Honey, you're the one always talkin' about leavin'. All they did was believe you. Just like the tall guy with the dimples that made French toast in the mornin'."
"I got too close to them. Broke my own rule."
"You put that hex on yourself," said Earlene.
Stephanie got out and ambled over to the front of her place where she deadheaded her flowers, yanked weeds, then pulled the hose around front and watered the bed. Maybe she'd move to Santa Cruz. She knew someone who lived in the mountains there. Said it's real nice with the big redwood trees and all. And it's not far to San Francisco. She rolled up the hose. The dahlia and larkspur were at their peak. She picked a few, mixed them with the cornflowers growing along the side, and fixed a bouquet to take to Earlene when she'd go over to sit with her later, to tell her the new plan.
Title graphic: "Quiet Rocker" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2010.