by Alice Munro
I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am. I can remember when the streets of the town I lived in were sprinkled with water to lay the dust in summer, and when girls wore waist cinchers and crinolines that could stand up by themselves, and when there was nothing much to be done about things like polio and leukemia. Some people who got polio got better, crippled or not, but people with leukemia went to bed, and, after some weeks’ or months’ decline in a tragic atmosphere, they died.
It was because of such a case that I got my first job, in the summer holidays, when I was thirteen.
Old Mrs. Crozier lived on the other side of town. Her stepson, Bruce, who was usually called Young Mr. Crozier, had come safely home from the war, where he had been a fighter pilot, had gone to college and studied history, and got married, and now he had leukemia. He and his wife were staying with Old Mrs. Crozier. The wife, Sylvia, taught summer school two afternoons a week at the college where they had met, some forty miles away. I was hired to look after Young Mr. Crozier while she wasn’t there. He was in bed in the front-corner bedroom upstairs, and he could still get to the bathroom by himself. All I had to do was bring him fresh water and pull the shades up or down and see what he wanted when he rang the little bell on his bedside table.
Usually what he wanted was to have the fan moved. He liked the breeze it created but was disturbed by the noise. So he’d want the fan in the room for a while and then he’d want it out in the hall, but close to his open door.
When my mother heard about this, she wondered why they hadn’t put him in a bed downstairs, where they surely had high ceilings and he would have been cooler.
I told her that they did not have any bedrooms downstairs.
“Well, my heavens, couldn’t they fix one up? Temporarily?”
That showed how little she knew about the Crozier household and the rule of Old Mrs. Crozier. Old Mrs. Crozier walked with a cane. She made one ominous-sounding journey up the stairs to see her stepson on the afternoons that I was there, and I suppose no more than that on the afternoons when I was not. But the idea of a bedroom downstairs would have outraged her as much as the notion of a toilet in the parlor. Fortunately, there was already a toilet downstairs, behind the kitchen, but I was sure that, if the upstairs one had been the only one, she would have made the laborious climb as often as necessary, rather than pursue a change so radical and unnerving.
My mother was thinking of going into the antique business, so she was very interested in the inside of the Crozier house, which was old and far grander than ours. She did get in, once, my very first afternoon there. I was in the kitchen, and I stood petrified, hearing her yoo-hoo and my own merrily called name. Then her perfunctory knock, her steps on the kitchen stairs. And Old Mrs. Crozier stumping out from the sunroom.
My mother said that she had just dropped by to see how her daughter was getting along. “She’s all right,” Old Mrs. Crozier said, standing in the hall doorway, blocking the view of antiques. My mother made a few more mortifying remarks and took herself off. That night, she said that Old Mrs. Crozier had no manners, because she was only a second wife, picked up on a business trip to Detroit, which was why she smoked and dyed her hair black as tar and put on lipstick like a smear of jam. She was not even the mother of the invalid upstairs. She did not have the brains to be. (We were having one of our fights then, this one relating to her visit, but that is neither here nor there.)
The way Old Mrs. Crozier saw it, I must have seemed just as intrusive as my mother, just as cheerily self-regarding. Shortly after I began working there, I went into the back parlor and opened the bookcase and took stock of the Harvard Classics set out in a perfect row. Most of them discouraged me, but I took out one that looked like it might be fiction, despite its foreign title, “I Promessi Sposi.” It was fiction all right, and it was in English.
I must have had the idea then that all books were free, wherever you found them. Like water from a public tap.
When Old Mrs. Crozier saw me with the book, she asked where I had got it and what I was doing with it. From the bookcase, I said, and I had brought it upstairs to read. The thing that most perplexed her seemed to be that I had got it downstairs but brought it upstairs. The reading part she appeared to let go, as if such an activity were too alien for her to contemplate. Finally, she said that if I wanted a book I should bring one from home.
Of course, there were books in the sickroom. Reading seemed to be acceptable there. But they were mostly open and face down, as if Mr. Crozier just read a little here and there, then put them aside. And their titles did not tempt me. “Civilization on Trial.” “The Great Conspiracy Against Russia.”
My grandmother had warned me that if I could help it I should not touch anything that the patient had touched, because of germs, and I should always keep a cloth between my fingers and his water glass.
My mother said that leukemia did not come from germs.
“So what does it come from?” my grandmother said.
“The medical men don’t know.”
It was Young Mrs. Crozier who picked me up and drove me home, though the distance across town was not far. She was a tall, thin, fair-haired woman with a variable complexion. Sometimes there were patches of red on her cheeks as if she had scratched them. Word had been passed that she was older than her husband, that he had been her student at college. My mother said that nobody seemed to have got around to figuring out that, since he was a war veteran, he could easily have been her student without that making her older. People were just down on her because she had got an education.
Another thing they said was that she should have stayed home and looked after him, as she had promised in the marriage ceremony, instead of going out to teach. My mother again defended her, saying that it was only two afternoons a week and she had to keep up her profession, seeing as how she would be on her own soon enough. And if she didn’t get out of the old lady’s way once in a while wouldn’t you think she’d go crazy? My mother always defended women who worked, and my grandmother always got after her for it.
One day I tried a conversation with Young Mrs. Crozier, Sylvia. She was the only college graduate I knew. Except for her husband, of course, and he had stopped counting.
“Did Toynbee write history books?”
“Beg pardon? Oh. Yes.”
None of us mattered to her—not me, or her critics or her defenders. We were no more than bugs on a lampshade.
As for Old Mrs. Crozier, all she really cared about was her flower garden. She had a man who came and helped her; he was about her age, but more limber than she was. His name was Hervey. He lived on our street, and, in fact, it was through him that she had heard about me as a possible employee. At home, he only gossiped and grew weeds, but here he plucked and mulched and fussed, while she followed him around, leaning on her stick and shaded by her big straw hat. Sometimes she sat on a bench, still commenting and giving orders, and smoking a cigarette. Early on, I dared to go between the perfect hedges to ask if she or her helper would like a glass of water, and she cried out, “Mind my borders!” before saying no.
Flowers were never brought into the house. Some poppies had escaped and were growing wild beyond the hedge, almost on the road, so I asked if I could pick a bouquet to brighten the sickroom.
“They’d only die,” Mrs. Crozier said, not seeming to realize that this remark had a double edge to it, under the circumstances.
Certain suggestions or notions would make the muscles of her lean spotty face quiver, her eyes go sharp and black, and her mouth work as if there were a despicable taste in it. She could stop you in your tracks then, like a savage thornbush.
The two days a week that I worked were not consecutive. Let us say they were Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first day, I was alone with the sick man and Old Mrs. Crozier. The second day, somebody arrived whom I had not been told about. I was sitting upstairs when I heard a car in the driveway, and someone running briskly up the back steps and entering the kitchen without knocking. Then the person called “Dorothy,” which I had not known was Old Mrs. Crozier’s name. The voice was a woman’s or a girl’s, and it was bold and teasing all at once.
I ran down the back stairs, saying, “I think she’s in the sunroom.”
“Holy Toledo! Who are you?”
I told her who I was and what I was doing there, and the young woman said that her name was Roxanne.
“I’m the masseuse.”
I didn’t like being caught by a word I didn’t know. I didn’t say anything, but she saw how things were.
“Got you stumped, eh? I give massages. You ever heard of that?”
Now she was unpacking the bag she had with her. Various pads and cloths and flat velour-covered brushes appeared.
“I’ll need some hot water to warm these up,” she said. “You can heat me some in the kettle.” (The Crozier house was grand, but there was still only cold water on tap, as in my house at home.)
Roxanne had sized me up, apparently, as somebody who was willing to take orders—especially, perhaps, orders given in such a coaxing voice. And she was right, though she may not have guessed that my willingness had more to do with my own curiosity than with her charm.
She was tanned, although it was still early in the summer, and her pageboy hair had a copper sheen—something that you could get easily from a bottle nowadays but that was unusual and enviable then. Brown eyes, a dimple in one cheek—she did so much smiling and joking that you never got a good enough look at her to say whether she was really pretty, or how old she was.
I was impressed by the way her rump curved out handsomely to the back, instead of spreading to the sides.
I learned quickly that she was new in town, married to the mechanic at the Esso station, and that she had two little boys, one four years old and one three. (“It took me a while to figure out what was causing them,” she said, with one of her conspiratorial twinkles.)
In Hamilton, where they used to live, she had trained to be a masseuse and it had turned out to be just the sort of thing she’d always had a knack for.
“She’s in the sunroom,” I told her again.
“I know, I’m just kidding her. Now, maybe you don’t know about getting a massage, but when you get one you got to take off all your clothes. Not such a problem when you’re young, but when you’re older, you know, you can get all embarrassed.”
She was wrong about one thing, at least as far as I was concerned. About its not being a problem to take off all your clothes when you’re young.
“So maybe you should skedaddle. You’re supposed to be upstairs anyway, aren’t you?”
This time I took the front staircase, while she was busy with the hot water. That way I got a glance in through the open door of the sunroom—which was not much of a sunroom at all, having its windows on three sides all filled up with the fat leaves of catalpa trees. There I saw Old Mrs. Crozier stretched out on a daybed, on her stomach, her face turned away from me, absolutely naked. A skinny streak of pale flesh. The usually covered length of her body didn’t look as old as the parts of her that were daily exposed—her freckled, dark-veined hands and forearms, her brown-blotched cheeks. The skin of her back and legs was yellow-white, like wood freshly stripped of its bark.
I sat on the top step and listened to the sounds of the massage. Thumps and grunts. Roxanne’s voice bossy now, cheerful but full of exhortation.
“Stiff knot here. Oh, brother. I’m going to have to whack you one. Just kidding. Aw, come on, just loosen up for me. You know, you got nice skin here. Small of your back—what do they say? It’s like a baby’s bum. Now I gotta bear down a bit—you’re going to feel it here. Take away the tension. Good girl.”
Old Mrs. Crozier was making little yelps. Sounds of complaint and gratitude. It went on for quite a while, and I got bored. I went back to reading some old Canadian Home Journals that I had found in a cabinet. I read recipes and checked on old-time fashions till I heard Roxanne say, “Now I’ll just clean this stuff up and we’ll go on upstairs, like you said.”
Upstairs. I slid the magazines back into their place in the cabinet that my mother would have coveted, and went into Mr. Crozier’s room. He was asleep, or at least he had his eyes closed. I moved the fan a few inches and smoothed his cover and went and stood by the window, twiddling with the blind.
Sure enough, there came a noise on the back stairs, Old Mrs. Crozier with her slow and threatening cane steps, Roxanne running ahead and calling, “Look out, look out, wherever you are. We’re coming to get you, wherever you are.”
Mr. Crozier had his eyes open now. Behind his usual weariness was a faint expression of alarm. But before he could pretend to be asleep again Roxanne burst into the room.
“So here’s where you’re hiding. I just told your stepmom I thought it was about time I got introduced to you.”
Mr. Crozier said, “How do you do, Roxanne?”
“How did you know my name?”
“Word gets around.”
“Fresh fellow you got here,” Roxanne said to Old Mrs. Crozier, who now came stumping into the room.
“Stop fooling around with that blind,” Old Mrs. Crozier said to me. “Go and fetch me a drink of cool water, if you want something to do. Not cold, just cool.”
“You’re a mess,” Roxanne said to Mr. Crozier. “Who gave you that shave and when was it?”
“A few days ago,” he said. “I handle it myself as well as I can.”
“That’s what I thought,” Roxanne said. And to me, “When you’re getting her water, how’d you like to heat some more up for me and I’ll undertake to give him a decent shave?”
Shaving him became a regular thing, once a week, following the massage. Roxanne told Mr. Crozier that first day not to worry. “I’m not going to pound on you like you must have heard me doing to Dorothy-doodle downstairs. Before I got my massage training I used to be a nurse. Well, a nurse’s aide. One of the ones who do all the work and then the nurses come around and boss you. Anyway, I learned how to make people comfortable.”
Dorothy-doodle? Mr. Crozier grinned. But the odd thing was that Old Mrs. Crozier grinned, too.
Roxanne shaved him deftly. She sponged his face and neck and torso and arms and hands. She pulled his sheets around, somehow managing not to disturb him, and she punched and rearranged his pillows. Talking all the while, pure nonsense.
“Dorothy, you’re a liar. You said you had a sick man upstairs, and I walk in here and I think, Where’s the sick man? I don’t see a sick man around here. Do I?”
Mr. Crozier said, “What would you say I am, then?”
“Recovering. That’s what I would say. I don’t mean you should be up and running around, I’m not so stupid as all that. I know you need your bed rest. But I say recovering. Nobody who was sick like you’re supposed to be ever looked as good as what you do.”
I thought this flirtatious prattle insulting. Mr. Crozier looked terrible. A tall man whose ribs showed like those of a famine survivor when she sponged him, whose head was partly bald, and whose skin looked as if it had the texture of a plucked chicken’s, his neck corded like an old man’s. Whenever I had waited on him in any way I had avoided looking at him. Though this was not really because he was sick and ugly. It was because he was dying. I would have felt a similar reticence even if he had been angelically handsome. I was aware of an atmosphere of death in the house, which grew thicker as you approached his room, and he was at the center of it, like the Host the Catholics kept in the box so powerfully called the tabernacle. He was the one stricken, marked out from everybody else, and here was Roxanne trespassing on his ground with her jokes and her swagger and her notions of entertainment.
On her second visit, she asked him what he did all day.
“Read sometimes. Sleep.”
And how did he sleep at night?
“If I can’t sleep I lie awake. Think. Sometimes read.”
“Doesn’t that disturb your wife?”
“She sleeps in the back bedroom.”
“Uh-huh. You need some entertainment.”
“Are you going to sing and dance for me?”
I saw Old Mrs. Crozier look aside with her odd involuntary grin.
“Don’t you get cheeky,” Roxanne said. “Are you up to cards?”
“I hate cards.”
“Well, have you got Chinese checkers in the house?”
Roxanne directed this question at Old Mrs. Crozier, who first said she had no idea, then wondered if there might be a board in a drawer of the dining-room buffet.
So I was sent down to look and came back with the board and a jar of marbles.
Roxanne set the game up over Mr. Crozier’s legs, and she and I and Mr. Crozier played, Old Mrs. Crozier saying that she had never understood the game or been able to keep her marbles straight. (To my surprise, she seemed to offer this as a joke.) Roxanne might squeal when she made a move or groan whenever somebody jumped over one of her marbles, but she was careful never to disturb the patient. She held her body still and set her marbles down like feathers. I tried to do the same, because she would widen her eyes warningly at me if I didn’t. All without losing her dimple.
I remembered Young Mrs. Crozier, Sylvia, saying to me in the car that her husband did not welcome conversation. It tired him out, she told me, and when he was tired he could become irritable. So I thought, If ever there was a time for him to become irritable, it’s now. Being forced to play a silly game on his deathbed, when you could feel his fever in the sheets.
But Sylvia must have been wrong. He had developed greater patience and courtesy than she was perhaps aware of. With inferior people—Roxanne was surely an inferior person—he made himself tolerant, gentle. When likely all he wanted to do was lie there and meditate on the pathways of his life and gear up for his future.
Roxanne patted the sweat off his forehead, saying, “Don’t get excited. You haven’t won yet!”
“Roxanne,” he said. “Roxanne. Do you know whose name that was, Roxanne?”
“Hmm?” she said, and I broke in. I couldn’t help it.
“It was Alexander the Great’s wife’s name.” My head was a magpie’s nest lined with such bright scraps of information.
“Is that so?” Roxanne said. “And who is that supposed to be? Great Alexander?”
I realized something when I looked at Mr. Crozier at that moment. Something shocking, saddening.
He liked her not knowing. Her ignorance was a pleasure that melted on his tongue, like a lick of toffee.
On the first day, she had worn shorts, as I did, but the next time and always after that Roxanne wore a dress of some stiff and shiny light-green material. You could hear it rustle as she ran up the stairs. She brought a fleecy pad for Mr. Crozier, so that he would not develop bedsores. She was dissatisfied with the arrangement of his bedclothes, always had to put them to rights. But however she scolded her movements never irritated him, and she made him admit to feeling more comfortable afterward.
She was never at a loss. Sometimes she came equipped with riddles. Or jokes. Some of the jokes were what my mother would have called smutty and would not have allowed around our house, except when they came from certain of my father’s relatives, who had practically no other kind of conversation.
These jokes usually started off with serious-sounding but absurd questions.
Did you hear about the nun who went shopping for a meat grinder?__
Did you hear what the bride and groom went and ordered for dessert on their wedding night?__
The answers always came with a double meaning, so that whoever told the joke could pretend to be shocked and accuse the listener of having a dirty mind.
And after she had got everybody used to her telling these jokes Roxanne went on to the sort of joke I didn’t believe my mother knew existed, often involving sex with sheep or hens or porcupines.
“Isn’t that awful?” she always said at the finish. She said she wouldn’t know this stuff if her husband didn’t bring it home from the garage.
The fact that Old Mrs. Crozier snickered disturbed me as much as the jokes themselves. I wondered if she didn’t actually get the jokes but simply enjoyed listening to whatever Roxanne said. She sat there with that chewed-in yet absent-minded smile on her face, as if she’d been given a present that she knew she’d like, even though she hadn’t got the wrapping off it yet.
Mr. Crozier didn’t laugh, but he never laughed, really. He raised his eyebrows, pretending to disapprove, as if he found Roxanne outrageous but endearing all the same. I tried to tell myself that this was just good manners, or gratitude for her efforts, whatever they might be.
I myself made sure to laugh so that Roxanne would not put me down as an innocent prig.
The other thing she did to keep things lively was tell us about her life—how she had come down from some lost little town in northern Ontario to Toronto to visit her older sister, when she was only fourteen, then got a job at Eaton’s, first cleaning up in the cafeteria, then being noticed by one of the managers, because she worked fast and was always cheerful, and suddenly finding herself a salesgirl in the glove department. (She made this sound like being discovered by Warner Bros.) And who should have come in one day but Barbara Ann Scott, the skating star, who bought a pair of elbow-length white kid gloves.
Meanwhile, Roxanne’s sister had so many boyfriends that she’d flip a coin to see whom she’d go out with almost every night, and she employed Roxanne to meet the rejects regretfully at the front door of the rooming house where they lived, while she herself and her pick of the night sneaked out the back. Roxanne said that maybe that was how she had developed such a gift of gab. And pretty soon some of the boys she had met this way were taking her out, instead of her sister. They did not know her real age.
“I had me a ball,” she said.
I began to understand that there were certain talkers—certain girls—whom people liked to listen to, not because of what they, the girls, had to say but because of the delight they took in saying it. A delight in themselves, a shine on their faces, a conviction that whatever they were telling was remarkable and that they themselves could not help but give pleasure. There might be other people—people like me—who didn’t concede this, but that was their loss. And people like me would never be the audience these girls were after, anyway.
Mr. Crozier sat propped up on his pillows and looked for all the world as if he were happy. Happy just to close his eyes and let her talk, then open his eyes and find her still there, like a chocolate bunny on Easter morning. And then with his eyes open follow every twitch of her candy lips and sway of her sumptuous bottom.
The time Roxanne spent upstairs was as long as the time she spent downstairs, giving the massage. I wondered if she was being paid. If she wasn’t, how could she afford to stay so long? And who could be paying her but Old Mrs. Crozier?
To keep her stepson happy and comfortable? To keep herself entertained in a curious way?
One afternoon, when Roxanne had gone downstairs, Mr. Crozier said that he felt thirstier than usual. I went to get him some more water from the pitcher that was always in the refrigerator. Roxanne was packing up to go home.
“I never meant to stay so late,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to run into that schoolteacher.”
I didn’t understand for a moment.
“You know. Syl-vi-a. She’s not crazy about me, either, is she? She ever mention me when she drives you home?”
I said that Sylvia had never mentioned Roxanne to me during any of our drives.
“Dorothy says she doesn’t know how to handle him. She says I make him a lot happier than what she does. Dorothy says that. I wouldn’t be surprised if she even told her that to her face.”
I thought of how Sylvia ran upstairs to her husband’s room every afternoon when she got home, before even speaking to me or her mother-in-law, her face flushed with eagerness and desperation. I wanted to say something about that—I wanted to defend her—but I didn’t know how. And people as confident as Roxanne often seemed to get the better of me.
“You sure she never says anything about me?”
I said again that she didn’t. “She’s tired when she gets home.”
“Yeah. Everybody’s tired. Some just learn to act like they aren’t.”
I did say something then, to balk her. “I quite like her.”
“You qwat like her?” Roxanne mocked.
Playfully, sharply, she jerked at a strand of the bangs I had recently cut for myself.
“You ought to do something decent with your hair.”
If Roxanne wanted admiration, which was her nature, what was it that Old Mrs. Crozier wanted? I had a feeling that there was mischief stirring, but I could not pin it down. Maybe it was just a desire to have Roxanne, her liveliness, in the house, double time?
Midsummer passed. Water was low in the wells. The sprinkler truck stopped coming and some stores put up sheets of what looked like yellow cellophane in their windows to keep their goods from fading. Leaves were spotty, the grass dry.
Old Mrs. Crozier kept her garden man hoeing, day after day. That’s what you do in dry weather, hoe and hoe to bring up any moisture that you can find in the ground underneath.
Summer school at the college would end after the second week of August, and then Sylvia Crozier would be home every day.
Mr. Crozier still seemed glad to see Roxanne, but he often fell asleep. He could drift off without letting his head fall back, during one of her jokes or anecdotes. Then after a moment he would wake up again and ask where he was.
“Right here, you sleepy noodle. You’re supposed to be paying attention to me. I should bat you one. Or how about I try tickling you instead?”
Anybody could see how he was failing. There were hollows in his cheeks like an old man’s, and the light shone through the tops of his ears, as if they were not flesh but plastic. (Though we didn’t say plastic then; we said celluloid.)
My last day of work, Sylvia’s last day of teaching, was a massage day. Sylvia had to leave for the college early, because of some ceremony, so I walked across town, arriving when Roxanne was already there. She and Old Mrs. Crozier were in the kitchen, and they both looked at me as if they had forgotten I was coming, as if I had interrupted them.
“I ordered them specially,” Old Mrs. Crozier said.
She must have been talking about the macaroons sitting in the baker’s box on the table.
“Yeah, but I told you,” Roxanne said. “I can’t eat that stuff. Not no way no how.”
“I sent Hervey down to the bakeshop to get them.”
“O.K., let Hervey eat them. I’m not kidding—I break out something awful.”
“I thought we’d have a treat,” Old Mrs. Crozier said. “Seeing it’s the last day we’ve got before—”
“Last day before she parks her butt here permanently? Yeah, I know. Doesn’t help to have me breaking out like a spotted hyena.”
Who was it whose butt was parked permanently?
Old Mrs. Crozier was wearing a beautiful black silk wrapper, with water lilies and geese on it. She said, “No chance of having anything special with her around. You’ll see. You won’t be able to even get to see him with her around.”
“So let’s get going and get some time today. Don’t bother about this stuff. It’s not your fault. I know you got it to be nice.”
“ ‘I know you got it to be nice,’ ” Old Mrs. Crozier imitated in a mean, mincing voice, and then they both looked at me, and Roxanne said, “Pitcher’s where it always is.”
I took Mr. Crozier’s water out of the fridge. It occurred to me that they could offer me one of the golden macaroons sitting in the box, but apparently it did not occur to them.
I’d expected Mr. Crozier to be lying back on the pillows with his eyes closed, but he was wide awake.
“I’ve been waiting,” he said, and took a breath. “For you to get here,” he said. “I want to ask you—do something for me. Will you?”
I said sure.
“Keep it a secret?”
I had been worried that he might ask me to help him to the commode that had recently appeared in his room, but surely that would not have to be a secret.
He told me to go to the bureau across from his bed and open the left-hand drawer, and see if I could find a key there.
I did so. I found a large, heavy, old-fashioned key.
He wanted me to go out of his room and shut the door and lock it. Then hide the key in a safe place, perhaps in the pocket of my shorts.
I was not to tell anybody what I had done.
I was not to let anybody know I had the key until his wife came home, and then I was to give it to her privately. Did I understand?
He thanked me.
All the time he was talking to me there was a film of sweat on his face and his eyes were as bright as if Roxanne were in the room.
“Nobody is to get in.”
“Nobody is to get in,” I repeated.
“Not my stepmother or—Roxanne. Just my wife.”
I locked the door from the outside and put the key in my pocket. But then I was afraid that it could be seen through the light cotton material, so I went downstairs and into the back parlor and hid it between the pages of “I Promessi Sposi.” I knew that Roxanne and Old Mrs. Crozier would not hear me, because the massage was going on, and Roxanne was using her professional voice.
“I got my work cut out for me getting these knots out of you today.”
And I heard Old Mrs. Crozier’s voice, full of her new displeasure.
“ . . . punching harder than you normally do.”
“Well, I gotta.”
I was headed upstairs when a further thought came to me.
If he had locked the door himself—which was evidently what he wanted the others to think—and I had been sitting on the top step as usual, I would certainly have heard him and called out and roused the others in the house. So I went back down and sat on the bottom step of the front stairs, a position from which I could conceivably not have heard a thing.
The massage seemed to be brisk and businesslike today; Roxanne was evidently not making jokes. Pretty soon I could hear her running up the back stairs.
She stopped. She said, “Hey, Bruce.”
She rattled the knob of the door.
Then she must have put her mouth to the keyhole, so that he would hear but nobody else would. I could not make out exactly what she was saying, but I could tell that she was pleading. First teasing, then pleading. After a while she sounded as if she were saying her prayers.
When she gave that up, she started pounding on the door with her fists, not too hard but urgently.
Eventually, she stopped that, too.
“Come on,” she said in a firmer voice. “If you got to the door to lock it, you can get there to open it up.”
Nothing happened. She came and looked over the bannister and saw me.
“Did you take Mr. Crozier’s water into his room?”
I said yes.
“So his door wasn’t locked or anything then?”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He just said thanks.”
“Well, he’s got his door locked and I can’t get him to answer.”
I heard Old Mrs. Crozier’s stick reaching the top of the back stairs.
“What’s the commotion up here?”
“He’s locked hisself in and I can’t get him to answer me.”
“What do you mean, locked himself in? Likely the door’s stuck. Wind blew it shut and it stuck.”
There was no wind that day.
“Try it yourself,” Roxanne said. “It’s locked.”
“I wasn’t aware there was a key to this door,” Old Mrs. Crozier said, as if her not being aware could negate the fact. Then, perfunctorily, she tried the knob and said, “Well. It’d appear to be locked.”
He had counted on this, I thought. That they would not suspect me, that they would assume that he was in charge. And in fact he was.
“We have to get in,” Roxanne said. She gave the door a kick.
“Stop that,” Old Mrs. Crozier said. “Do you want to wreck the door? You couldn’t get through it, anyway—it’s solid oak. Every door in this house is solid oak.”
“Then we have to call the police.”
There was a pause.
“They could get up to the window,” Roxanne said.
Old Mrs. Crozier drew in her breath and spoke decisively. “You don’t know what you are saying. I won’t have the police in this house. I won’t have them climbing all over my walls like caterpillars.”
“We don’t know what he could be doing in there.”
“Well, then, that’s up to him. Isn’t it?”
Now steps—Roxanne’s—retreating to the back staircase.
“Yes. You’d better just take yourself away before you forget whose house this is.”
Roxanne was going down the stairs. A couple of stomps of the stick went after her, then stopped.
“And don’t get the idea you’ll go to the constable behind my back. He’s not going to take his orders from you. Who gives the orders around here, anyway? It’s certainly not you. You understand me?”
Very soon I heard the kitchen door slam shut. And then Roxanne’s car start.
I was no more worried about the police than Old Mrs. Crozier was. The police in our town meant Constable McClarty, who came to the school to warn us about sledding on the streets in winter and swimming in the mill-race in summer, both of which we continued to do. It was ridiculous to think of him climbing up a ladder or lecturing Mr. Crozier through a locked door.
He would tell Roxanne to mind her own business and let the Croziers mind theirs.
It was not ridiculous, however, to think of Old Mrs. Crozier giving orders, and I thought she might do so now that Roxanne—whom she apparently did not like anymore—was gone. But although I heard her go back to Mr. Crozier’s door and stand there, she did not even rattle the knob. She just said one thing.
“Stronger than you’d think,” she muttered. Then made her way downstairs. The usual punishing noises with her steady stick.
I waited awhile and then I went out to the kitchen. Old Mrs. Crozier wasn’t there. She wasn’t in either parlor or in the dining room or the sunroom. I got up my nerve and knocked on the toilet door, then opened it, and she was not there, either. Then I looked out the window over the kitchen sink and I saw her straw hat moving slowly along the cedar hedge. She was out in the garden in the heat, stumping along between her flower beds.
I was not worried by the thought that seemed to have troubled Roxanne. I did not even stop to consider it, because I believed that it would be quite absurd for a person with only a short time to live to commit suicide.
All the same, I was nervous. I ate two of the macaroons that were still sitting on the kitchen table. I ate them hoping that pleasure would bring back normalcy, but I barely tasted them. Then I shoved the box into the refrigerator so that I would not hope to turn the trick by eating more.
Old Mrs. Crozier was still outside when Sylvia got home.
I retrieved the key from between the pages of the book as soon as I heard the car and I told Sylvia quickly what had happened, leaving out most of the fuss. She would not have waited to listen to it, anyway. She went running upstairs.
I stood at the bottom of the stairs to hear what I could hear.
Then Sylvia’s voice, surprised but in no way desperate, and too low for me to make out what she was saying. Within about five minutes she was downstairs, saying that it was time to get me home. She was flushed, as if the spots on her cheeks had spread all over her face, and she looked shocked, but unable to resist her happiness.
Then, “Oh. Where is Mother Crozier?”
“In the flower garden, I think.”
“Well, I suppose I’d better speak to her, just for a moment.”
After she had done that, she no longer looked quite so happy.
“I suppose you know,” she said as she backed out the car. “I suppose you can imagine Mother Crozier is upset. Not that I am blaming you. It was very good and loyal of you. Doing what Mr. Crozier asked you to do. You weren’t scared of anything happening, were you?”
I said no. Then I said, “I think Roxanne was.”
“Mrs. Hoy? Yes. That’s too bad.”
As we were driving down what was known as Crozier’s Hill, she said, “I don’t think he wanted to frighten them. You know, when you’re sick, sick for a long time, you can get not to appreciate other people’s feelings. You can get turned against people even when they’re doing what they can to help you. Mrs. Crozier and Mrs. Hoy were certainly trying their best. But Mr. Crozier just didn’t feel that he wanted them around anymore today. He’d just had enough of them. You understand?”
She did not seem to know that she was smiling when she said this.
Had I ever heard that name before?
And spoken so gently and respectfully, yet with light-years of condescension.
Did I believe what Sylvia had said?
I believed that it was what he had told her.
I did see Roxanne again that day. I saw her just as Sylvia was introducing me to this new name. Mrs. Hoy.
She—Roxanne—was in her car and she had stopped at the first cross street at the bottom of Crozier’s Hill to watch us drive by. I didn’t turn to look at her, because it was all too confusing, with Sylvia talking to me.
Of course, Sylvia would not have known whose car that was. She wouldn’t have known that Roxanne must have been waiting to see what was going on, driving around the block all the time since she had left the Croziers’ house.
Roxanne would have recognized Sylvia’s car, though. She would have noticed me. She would have known that things were all right, from the kindly serious faintly smiling way that Sylvia was talking to me.
She didn’t turn the corner and drive back up the hill to the Croziers’ house. Oh, no. She drove across the street—I watched in the sideview mirror—toward the east part of town, where the wartime houses had been put up. That was where she lived.
“Feel the breeze,” Sylvia said. “Maybe those clouds are going to bring us rain.”
The clouds were high and white, glaring. They looked nothing like rain clouds, and there was a breeze only because we were in a moving car with the windows rolled down.
I understood pretty well the winning and losing that had taken place between Sylvia and Roxanne, but it was strange to think of the almost obliterated prize, Mr. Crozier—and to think that he could have had the will to make a decision, even to deprive himself, so late in his life. The carnality at death’s door—or the true love, for that matter—was something I wanted to shake off back then, just as I would shake caterpillars off my sleeve.
Sylvia took Mr. Crozier away to a rented cottage on the lake, where he died sometime before the leaves were off.
The Hoy family moved on, as mechanics’ families often did.
My mother struggled with a crippling disease, which put an end to all her money-making dreams.
Dorothy Crozier had a stroke, but recovered, and famously bought Halloween candy for the children whose older brothers and sisters she had ordered from her door.
I grew up, and old.
Too Much Happiness