MRS. QUILTERíS COMPLAINING
Iíve just entered college, and I feel like the wisest of men although Iím sure that thirty years from now Iíll look back and think I was a jackass. But, thanks to my friends, I know I could be worse. I got a letter yesterday from my folks with the mandatory news from our hometown, guaranteed to make you yawn, except for the fact that Mrs. Quilter finally passed on, at the very moment we were about to concede her immortality.
I met her back in junior high, when my friends and I were crazy, immature kids who thought ourselves veritable hoodlums, because we had nothing to compare ourselves to. For us, being obnoxious was like doing drive-by shootings; coming up with the wittiest verbal put-down was like being a commando. We made snide comments in class, apologized insincerely to our parents after they were called from school, and shoplifted snacks from the local mini-market. We called each other constantly on the cell-phone, sent text messages a mile a minute to keep each other posted on our thoughts and itches, and battled each other ceaselessly in merciless video games that saved us from being inconsequential. We were warriors, assassins, and pilots, in our dreams, not smart-alecks who couldnít scare a fly.
When Mrs. Quilter, whose house lay on the way back from school, invited us in, one day, to offer us a batch of cookies she had just made, Ethan politely accepted, while the rest of us declined. We laughed at him as we continued home after enduring the incoherent rambling and unbearable kindness of the old lady in the doorway, warning him that the cookies were probably laced with arsenic. "I saw somebody like that on Cold Case Files," Zack told him. But when we saw Ethan alive next day, and remembered how good those gigantic chocolate chip cookies had looked, and how wonderful they had smelled, as he ate them in front of our paranoid faces, we couldnít help but regret our choice.
We asked around about Mrs. Quilter, and finally somebody connected with our religious institution (boring), told us that she was not one of us, but that she was a very nice old woman whose husband had died some years ago, and that she was in poor health and used to have a dog named Rabies, but the name for the dog was given by her husband who had had a better sense of humor than she did. "Poor old woman spends all her time thinking of the past, and complaining about her aches and pains," our informant said.
When we learned that Mrs. Quilter was in poor health, some of us retained our reticence towards eating her cookies, which might be contaminated by whatever it was that she had. "Maybe she drools in them, or doesnít wash her hands after going to the bathroom. We could get Hepatitis or Lung Cancer."
"Idiot, you can only get Lung Cancer from smoking cigarettes."
"Who knows, for sure, that itís not contagious?"
But others were satisfied that Mrs. Quilter was not a poisoner, and in the face of the spectacular cookies that she baked, decided to take their chances with whatever it was that was afflicting her health.
It seems that Mrs. Quilter had a longstanding practice of baking cookies as a means of luring neighbors into her house, so that she could talk their ear off, inform them of the superiority of bygone times, warn them of the decline of society, and use them to unburden herself of the sorrows and disappointments of her life. "The trick," Aaron told us, "is to get the cookies without the lecture. We have to be smart, like those wise, old wolves that get the bait out of the trap without getting caught."
"Is Mrs. Ross making you read Jack London, too?"
"I wish we only had to read about dudes freezing to death; weíre reading about the f**king atom bomb and peopleís skin coming off."
"I wonder if anybodyís d**k ever gets frostbit?"
"Sick, dude! Sick!"
Following Ethan, who she knew now, all of us went into Mrs. Quilterís house, and accepted cookies, oatmeal raisin this time, carefully wrapped in napkins by her fumbling, arthritic hands. ("Damn, sheís slow!") She was like someone with palsy (except that she was only old) attempting to perform the Japanese tea ceremony (we had just seen a movie about it in our Social Studies class).
"Do you know how to juggle, Mrs. Quilter?" Zack asked her.
We all snickered.
"No," she answered, seriously, which caused us all to laugh out loud, because she was like a dumb fish that would bite at anything on the hook. (Age makes the brightest people dumb.) "But I used to go to the circus when I was young, and I saw jugglers there," she said.
"Who was the President, then, Mrs. Quilter? George Washington? Whatís the good of being honest if you donít have cherries? Did they teach you that George Washington had slaves?"
"The President," she said, "when I went to the circus, would have been Mr. Wilson."
"I remember it was the same year that the Lusitania went down. What a shame! All those nice peopleÖ"
My mouth dropped open. "How old are you?" I asked.
"29," she said, laughing coyly as though she had just said something very funny.
"Thatís the kind of jokes they made in those days," Zack explained.
"Thatís why they had silent movies," Nathan was quick to add; "because nobody could stand listening to them talk."
"Thanks for the cookies!" Aaron said. And we were out of there, after only about two minutes of listening to something about her chronic bursitis and varicose veins.
And thatís how it went, for quite some time. The poor old lady was too lonely to send us away, no matter how rude we treated her, and kept on making us cookies. We dropped by two or three times a week to pretend to say hello, and to get the goods. "Could you stop making oatmeal raisin?" Zack asked her, "nobody likes them. We like white macadamia, and date-nut cookies."
"The ones with the raspberry filling," said Nathan.
"No, the ones with the shreds of coconut on top," Aaron insisted.
Ethan, who felt a little guilty, helped Mrs. Quilter to open up jars whenever she asked, and to change light bulbs in the ceiling which she could not reach (she had a ladder but was afraid to climb it). But when she offered him a little money to clean her house, he finally told her, "No thanks, get a cleaning lady, Mrs. Quilter."
"He doesnít even make his own bed," Aaron explained.
While Zack commented on the financial remuneration that had been offered: "For people from her times, thatís a lot of money. You know, in those days a movie was, like, a nickel or a dime or something like that. Today, you couldnít hire half a Mexican for that amount."
"Remember, coconut cookies," said Aaron as we left.
One day, when Ethan and I were coming home from school alone, without the more aggressive support of the rest of our friends, Mrs. Quilter saw us passing by and captured us: because, by ourselves, we could not ward her off. Neither could we do the rapid-fire commando run for the cookies, in and out with the quick "hello, good-bye."
"Oh, it was such a bad night of sleeping," she complained to us as we began to eat the cookies which she placed before us, this time on little paper plates which somehow required us to stay longer. "I would have tossed and turned all night, except that I no longer have the strength to toss and turn, so I just lay there, on my back, staring at the ceiling. Do you know, four years ago I broke my wrist while I was sleeping?"
"You had some kind of nightmare?" asked Ethan (Aaron, were he here, would have prevented him from throwing fuel onto the fire). "You fell out of bed?"
"Oh no," she said, "I simply lay on it the wrong way and when I woke up, it hurt so badly. It became all black and blue and my daughter, who used to visit me then before she moved to California, drove me to the doctor right away, as soon as she saw it, even though sheíd come for the china which I no longer used. I hope sheís kept it in the family and hasnít sold it. Well, she was very upset that Iíd waited for so long to get attention, but who is going to pay so much for an ambulance, and go to the hospital in the bandit-mobile as Iíve taken to calling it? People of my generation darned socks, we patched holes and sewed up tears, we made our own clothes, and we didnít buy lots of useless things. A penny saved is a penny earned. Yes, she took me to the doctor right away in, I believe, it was a Honda Civic. To North Shore, where a wonderful doctor, Dr. Forrest, or was it Forrester?, saw me. Bones become so brittle at this age, the calcium, you know. Age - what an awful invention; what an awful thing for God to do to us!"
Poor Ethan and I were helpless, Zack would have laughed at the idea of breaking a bone while sleeping, and then led us out the door, but we just sat there like prisoners before a firing squad.
"My back is so stiff sometimes, I can hardly rise from the chair Iím in," she continued. "I wish my eyes were better. I like to read. But now, I get a headache. If I didnít, I wouldnít mind being stuck in the chair all day, except for the hemorrhoids. Itís so embarrassing to go the drugstore and get the suppositories. So I listen to the radio, although there is so much awful music these days. The worse thing that can happen is to think you have found a good radio station, and then to sit down in the chair and sink deeply into it, and then, suddenly, the station you are listening to goes from music that is at least bearable, like something by Paul McCartney, to this awful stuff that sounds like somebody is being stabbed in the recording studio; and you are being tortured, but the only way to end the torture is to go through the torture of getting up out of the chair, which, at my age, is like climbing out of a pit. Do you remember the part from the Bible that goes: ĎWhat man among you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?í I think of that line every time I try to stand up."
"Maybe you need a home health aide," suggested Ethan.
"So much money: a penny saved is a penny earned," she replied. Before she added: "Be thankful that you are still young, boys. Try hard to enjoy life, because once youíre old, only heroes can enjoy it."
"Did you enjoy your life?" I asked.
Ethan looked at me as though I had just committed the worst blunder imaginable, like leaving my fatherís credit card behind on the train; but he was just as helpless as I was.
Mrs. Quilter sat there, her eyes fading away into some distant place that would take hours to explain. Something beautiful that spared her body whenever she thought of it.
"I think sheís happy," whispered Ethan. "Quick, letís leave!"
"Nice cookies, Mrs. Quilter!" we told her, heading out the door before she could awaken.
Well, after a while, the temptation of the cookies, balanced against the constant complaints and rambling memories of Mrs. Quilter, began to wear us out. When I was with her with only Ethan, somehow, we could bear to listen to her stories and laments, at least until the cookies were gone, but when all of us visited her together, my patience plummeted to the level of the more aggressive boys. Then, I fidgeted and stopped trying to understand what she was talking about.
Zack complained that he was getting fat (Aaron told him, "With your looks, what does it matter? When an appleís already on the ground, it canít fall." He must have got this line from some relative, since it didnít contain the words f**k, d**k, sucks, cool, dude, awesome or phat.) But Zackís mother actually got concerned, and made a special trip, somewhere, to get her expanding son some seaweed candy, and something with almonds and raisins in it, which hikers and mountain climbers use. Zack threw the crap into the cafeteria garbage can every day, in spite of how diligently his mother portioned it out in zip lock bags every morning, and he went back to eating Mrs. Quilterís irresistible cookies.
Nathan, also, tried to kick the habit, mainly because the old lady was irritating the hell out of him. His mother told him, based on his way of presenting the story, that Mrs. Quilter was a monstrous and selfish woman who was abusing us all by dumping her problems and woes on us. "She is darkening your lives with her misery, bringing you into her reach with her treats and then polluting you all with her frustration and pessimism. Itís like she was rubbing dirt all over you! This is trauma! This is abuse! Kids are meant to enjoy life, not to be burdened with the despair of the elderly!"
Nathan, from then on, went to Mrs. Quilterís house with a sullen look on his face, as though he were the victim of a terrible crime. He took his cookies from her unsteady hands and ate them with righteous indignation. He got even with her, for her unhappiness, by leaving crumbs all over the floor.
When the winter came, and Mrs. Quilter asked us if we would shovel the driveway and walk for her, we declined; we had been briefed, in exhaustive detail, by Nathanís mother, how to avoid being exploited by her. Ethan cushioned his "no" by suggesting that she hire someone from the local gas station, or one of the gardeners, who made money during the winter by putting a plow on his truck.
"You donít want to make a little extra money?" she asked Ethan, who was, at that very moment, reading a text message from a friend.
"Oh, Markís at the library, canít get the book he needs for the report. Some asshole beat him to the punch." (He was talking to me.) He looked up, realizing that he had just been spoken to. "Mrs. Quilter, call Rossi Landscaping. They move snow. Now that thereís no lawns to mow and hedges to trimÖ"
"Itís so expensive," she said. "For those of us who are living on a fixed income. Of course, Iíd move to someplace where there is no snow, but how can I, when all my memories, my whole life is here, in this house, where Hank and I spent so many happy years? Whatís Florida got to offer, oranges? I need more than oranges. Itís so hot, and half of the state is a swamp. How could I leave this house?"
We felt bad, later that week, as we trudged along the cleared road in front of her house on the way to our own homes, and looked up her snow-filled driveway, to the white porch and the drawn shades. Only the footprints of the mail carrier going up to her door, like the tracks of the Abominable Snowman winding through the Himalayas, gave any evidence that the house was lived in.
"Well," said Ethan, turning away from the snow we had avoided shoveling, "itís bound to melt."
After it did, from a distance we saw Mrs. Quilter hobbling down the driveway to get the local paper, filled with bargains and coupons, which the paper boy had left in the street. The snow, melted by an intense but short-lived sun, had refrozen into a sheer layer of ice, and the sight of Mrs. Quilter taking her chances on it was almost more than we could stand to see. "She might fall!" gasped Ethan. "If she does, sheíll break every bone in her body!"
"Donít get sucker-punched," Nathan warned him. "Sheís putting herself in danger to try to get control of you. Sheíll use your good will to take advantage of you." What a wonderful spokesman for his mother!
Aaron agreed. "Donít be manipulated, sheís a user!"
While Zack said: "Stupid old lady, she deserves to fall! Old people are so pig-headed, and so cheap: to save a penny, theyíll walk through fire."
After the snow and sheet of ice were gone, and the certainty of being exploited was diminished, we dropped by again to see if she was still making cookies.
Well, one day the worst thing imaginable happened. She saw me walking by, and I was not even with Ethan, I was totally alone, and she called over to me. At first, I pretended not to see her, but she kept on calling and waving her arms like a survivor in the jungle waving to a passing airplane, until I could no longer resist, especially after she told me that she had a new batch of date-nut cookies fresh out of the oven.
Next thing I knew, I was sitting on her sofa with a plate of cookies in my hands, and a mug of hot chocolate sitting on the table beside me - the kind of chocolate her grandmother had prepared for her when she was a child - and outside, a gigantic downpour had just started, and who was going to go home in that? It was as if Nature, itself, had conspired to keep me a prisoner in her home, on the one day I had ever been lured into her lair alone.
For a little while, she asked me about school, and how it was going. My answers were vague, because the truth was, I was suffering from a lack of motivation and spending all my time surfing the web, and my grades reflected it. "When I was a girl," she said, and she told me about what they had studied in school in her times, before she noticed that there was a twitch under her eye, which she could not stop. "I have a problem with my nervous system," she told me, "but the doctors donít know what it is. Once you get a certain age, they just stop caring, itís as if they decided you were past the rightful age of healing and now you simply ought to die. Do you know, one doctor had the nerve to tell me the other day, that I should be grateful that I can still walk on my own? When I was young, I never thought that I should be grateful for such a thing. Do you know, Jon, I used to be considered a very attractive young lady in my day?" She slowly struggled up to get me the photo album.
"Please, donít go to the trouble!" I said.
"No, please, Iíd like to show you," she said, groaning as she stood, somehow seeming like a tree that has been cut down, as she rose. Her legs had cramped up while sitting, and she hobbled forward as if in shackles.
I watched her with horror, and thought that maybe Nathanís mother was right.
At last, Mrs. Quilter was back, sitting beside me on the sofa, fumbling with a pair of ancient looking spectacles that seemed like they must have gone out of fashion around the time that silent movies first gave way to talkies. "This," she said, "was my grandmother from motherís side, Calliope, who was named after one of the Greek Muses, which was not so unusual, because in those days, everyone knew their literature and their history, even the ones who had no more than a fourth-grade education and had to start working at an early age to help their family. She was a wonderful baker, Jon, you should have seen the marvelous cakes that she made. When I think of all the money that that company Entenmannís made, and the other ones, Sarah Lee and Duncan Hines, I think that Calliope could have made a fortune, but she just baked for her family and her friends, she said she had to feel a lot of love for the people who were going to eat her food for it to come out right."
I knew it was going to be a long afternoon, but how could I leave? Walking away while she was turning the pages of the photo album would be like hitting her over the head and stealing her purse.
"This one, here," she continued, "was Arthur, Calliopeís husband. He worked for a long while in the carriage business, until Mr. Ford & company crushed his livelihood, after which he was never the same, and began to drink heavily. Poor Calliope, what a terrible thing when the woman must take the reins of the family. You donít drink, Jon, do you?"
"No," I assured her. But stories of other peopleís disasters with alcohol only inspired me to give drinking a fair shot. I would not let it be banished from my life by othersí misrepresentations of it.
Pages turned, she told me about the First World War, and how noble President Wilson was, who said it was to be the war to end all wars and created the wonderful League of Nations. She told me about the Radio, and how the family gathered around it to listen to the marvelous programs they had in those days, which she told me about, occasionally wincing as she continued to turn the pages with her purplish, rigid fingers, some of which seemed irrevocably curled and retracted, unable to straighten out. She told me how she had Douglas Fairbanks Sr.ís autograph somewhere, in the house: two actually, one of him as the Thief of Baghdad and one as Zorro. "Such a lively, dashing man, I would have loved to marry him! But who was I but one of millions with the same thought?" She had used to play the piano, once, as did all girls who were well-raised, with these very same fingers with which she could now barely turn a page. I wondered how she made the cookies. If it was, for her, like climbing Mr. Everest?
For a moment, we paused over the pictures of her, a disconcertingly attractive young woman if you could get past the style of those days, which made everybody seem so wholesome as to be almost repelling. But you could see intelligence and something of the devil in her eyes, a love of wild dancing that she tamed, but barely. And then, there were the pictures of her husband, Hank, a sharp-looking man, kind but not to the point of being unthreatening. "God blessed me as no other woman to give me a man like that," she said. "He was so respectful and he had such a wonderful sense of humor, I was sure I would die laughing." And then, next, there were the children, and Mrs. Quilter as a proud young mother holding them in her arms and becoming gradually maternal, the flamboyant spark in her eyes quieting over time, accepting the steadier, less brilliant light of responsibility; and the children finally able to stand on their own, dressed in clothes that I had only seen in movies.
Mrs. Quilter passed quickly over the Great Depression and the Second World War, saying only, "Hank was resourceful, and Daddy helped us out"; and, "We made tremendous sacrifices. It was such a terrible war. Who would imagine someone like Hitler could be born, and that so many people could actually follow him? We lost many people who we knew in that war. The Germans were great fighters, they were very smart and very skilled; it took everything we had to beat them."
I forget what she said next, something about "I hope it is more successful than the League of Nations" and "we were a close family" until I heard her talking about the invention of the TV, which recovered my attention, and I gasped: "You were alive before the TV was invented?" Of course, I knew that, but the surprise of having it explicitly stated was still so great, that I couldnít help blurting it out as if I were a historical ignoramus, which I almost was in those days. She told me all about it: the black-and-white RCA; the first programs on the TV; the names of TV hosts and actors who I had never heard of, who she talked about as if they were the planets in the heavens which everyone knows: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon Ė well, thatís actually not a planet, but who cares?, itís in the sky. She mentioned something about college football and some big pro game in 1958, and General Electric commercials.
For a while, she noticed how badly her elbow was hurting, and I brought her a pain-killer from her medicine cabinet after she described it to me, for almost ten minutes: the bottle it was in, the bottleís color and size, the properties of the cap that was on it, and something about the terrible, irresponsible parents who didnít watch their kids, who were to blame for the fact that old people could no longer get at their own medicine, which was barricaded underneath caps that were like bank vaults. She also described the pills that were inside the bottle, their color, and the first letter of the drug company that was inscribed on them, which she could only discern if she was wearing her most powerful set of glasses.
"Oh, how awful!" she groaned as she took the pills with a cup of water (almost choking in the process). "The drug companies make the pills weak so that you constantly have to buy more. I wonder if they are only placebos. My doctor wonít give me anything stronger, he says I could become an addict. Imagine, me? I never even smoked a marijuana cigarette. You must enjoy life while youíre young, Jon! Do you hear me?"
For a moment, I thought that she might be about to die, because her breath became suddenly short and labored as she sat beside me, and her frailty became utterly palpable, as though a pair of powerless hands were clinging to me for dear life, and losing their grip. "God, what will I do," I thought, "if she goes into cardiac arrest? Call 911? I guess so." I had never been involved in an emergency before, never called the police. It seemed so awful, to disturb them like that!
I asked her if she was all right, and she said, "Oh, Iíll be fine," and I realized that she spent her days, now, close to death. Horrible episodes such as these were a regular part of her day.
The little, barely audible grunts she emitted as she fought to breathe, reminded me of the sound one of my childhood toys had made when I squeezed it: some kind of toy animal, a monkey I think, that was meant to squeak but mainly let out a lot of air.
"Are you sure youíre all right?"
"The nurse recommended that I keep oxygen at home," she said, "but the last thing I need is for it to blow up." She huffed and puffed as though getting that one sentence out was like running a quarter mile, then sat still for a moment to wait for the next breath, which was needed by her words, to reach me.
At last, because it was so hard to talk, she merely continued turning the pages of the album, emphasizing the relative importance of the different photos by the way she tapped her fingers on the plastic covering. A tap which you could hear meant, "Take a good look at this one!"
Near the end of the album, Mrs. Quilter came upon a piece of folded yellow lined paper with faded handwriting on it. She took it out of the album book and slowly opened it, in an operation that was, for her, as complex as making an origami figure. "Hank," she said, at last. "A letter he wrote to me from abroad. His work frequently took him away from home. Itís just the way it was." With eyes wide open, she read the letter to herself, her lips mumbling silence, except for one brief moment, when her whisper slipped up: "But I told her no, I had a lovely wife at home, and three beautiful children whose hearts I could never break, not for all the money or kisses in the world." This is the kind of stuff that made kids of my age want to puke, but without my friends there, I just sat still watching this old woman smile and look up towards nowhere, staring into space, with tears in her eyes Ė but she didnít have enough moisture in her eyes for the tears to fully form and come out, the eyes were like pools of water during a drought, which are only mud holes; you could see deep emotions coursing through her veins, but the body was like that of a mummy which couldnít stir.
"Good old Hank," she said. "We had some good years. We were often apart, but the times we spent together, well, they could have put Heaven out of business." And her eyes continued staring out into space, looking at nothing, which was, for her, where all the beauty and glory of the world had gone. I looked, horrified and amazed, at her euphoric eyes which were no longer where I was. The pain that persecuted her, the pain that followed her everywhere, and which she was accustomed to giving us a blow-by-blow account of, did not follow her now, did not reach the place which she had reached. I saw, on her face, an expression of utter contentment and bliss, of thanks and reverence, and not a single trace of the discomfort and the agony which hounded her like Harpies coming from her own body.
And I realized then and there, as I sat on the sofa with Mrs. Quilter, that she did not abuse us any more than Nature abuses us all, as it also gives us extraordinary compensations for the tragedy of being human. All the time I knew her, she did not illuminate me with wise philosophy or original points of view; she merely showed me what it is to be a human being. For that, an ordinary person, not dismissed, suffices. I saw what life was. I saw how it might end, which clamors for it to be truly lived. I saw the awful decline, but also the greatness embodied by not declining before oneís time; the greatness embodied by accepting the summer as bravely as the winter. I saw this woman wracked by pain, her very body twisted, bent and contorted, the constant quarry of misery, who, nonetheless, on the basis of things lived, could, just by touching the memory of those things, utterly elude her collapse for a few beautiful moments of freedom: disappear from the pain altogether, forget her impending demise, and sit there with a smile of angelic revelry on her face. I thought: when I am old and in pain, I want to have something to fall back on, something I can remember that will make me able to smile as she is smiling. I must begin to acquire the memories that will comfort me in my old age, now; I must do the things and feel the things that will make death be something I can face.
They say that such thoughts as these, of aging and death, ought not to be brought forward to disturb the young; but, as I see the paths my friends have taken and not taken, I am beginning to finally believe the poets, who said that youth is wasted on the young. Mrs. Quilter was more than one big downer, she was a godsend: she lit the fire under my ass to live!
And what wonderful cookies she made!
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents