Mitchell W. Baum
Ice cracked under the tires as Mitchell parked at his grandmother’s house. The gray afternoon was fading. Crusted snow in the light of the house clung to laurel leaves, making the bushes sag. Only Mitchell and his sister were left to see the old woman now. Uncle Wally had moved to Florida and paid her bills from there. Mitchell lit a cigarette, delaying going in. He remembered the old house in Waterbury, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The tick of the tall clock in the front hall had made it seem that the house itself was alive and unchanging. In that house he’d always known what was expected. This house was like a shoebox, all on one floor, practical. His visit was overdue. It seemed incredible he didn’t come more often.
Mary, the Black cook, let him in and took his coat. He liked her but was uncomfortable with her shyness. For both of them it was as if they mattered only for what they meant to the old woman. Mary was in her fifties. Mitchell wondered how she coped with her loneliness. A nurse came most days, but Mary didn’t drive so she couldn’t leave. He’d seen her, on her Sunday day off, hurry through breakfast, change into a pretty dress, and take a taxi to New London. He thought she must live for those days.
“How is she, Mary?”
“She’s pretty good. When she gets tired she doesn’t make much sense, but we don’t bother her with that. She’s been asking all day, ‘What time is it? What time is it? When’s he going to get here?’”
She led him into the living room, where his grandmother sat peering at the fire. She had a round, pretty face and a cumulus of white hair. The big, winged chair dwarfed her like a child. She didn’t notice them come in. They stopped, not wanting to pierce the quiet. A spark sounded in the fireplace.
“Look who’s here, Mrs. Wallace!”
It took a moment for recognition, but then her arms shot out. She grabbed his hands, shook them, and laughed. She kissed him, then pushed him back. She held him by the lapels of his jacket. She seemed to soak him in.
“Let me look at you!”
She banged her cane on the floor.
“Well, Mary, what do you think?”
“Isn’t he handsome, Mrs. Wallace!”
He was almost handsome but his extra weight made his face soft and undefined. His big, round eyes seemed perpetually questioning and indecisive.
Mary brought them some drinks and nuts.
“Good old Dr. Holiday says I need one of these every day for my heart.” The old woman winked. “What would I do without him?! So tell me, how’s that college of yours? Having a gay time with the girls?”
“I’m keeping up the tradition,” he lied.
“Well, that’s good! You should. When I was your age, there wasn’t all this seriousness you have now. We had some fun. There was a gang of us. I went to all the parties. Your grandfather, poor thing, was courting me for a long time, wanting to get married. But I kept putting him off because I was having too good a time.”
Mitchell relaxed back into his chair. He had heard the story so many times, unchanging word for word, like a favorite song.
“I wanted to go to the Yale Prom again. You can’t be married and go to a prom! But H. Mitchell had finally had enough. He came to see me one morning at my father’s house on Prospect Street. He got us alone, and he sat me down. ‘Now, Louise,’ he said, and I knew I was in for it.” She winked at Mitchell. “‘Louise,’ he said, ‘I’m taking the afternoon train to New York. Tomorrow I leave on a boat to Africa. I’m going to expand the business there. I plan to be gone five years. If you agree to marry me, I won’t go, but I have to know now.’”
She laughed. “Well, I could see this was it. I didn’t want him to get away. I just wanted a little more time but he was so determined. So what could I do?!”
She looked at Mitchell as if she was helpless. Then she laughed and looked into the flames like she was seeing it all again.
Mary brought trays, which she set on little tables in front of their chairs. Mitchell was sad to realize they didn’t use the dining room anymore.
Now Mrs. Wallace seemed exhausted. Mitchell realized how much the effort to be gay had taken out of her. She looked listlessly at her food.
She’d always gotten what she wanted and been happy with it, but she was no longer in charge. When Mitchell was young, if he complained or was scared, she would say, “Oh, bubbles!” It always made him feel better, as if whatever the problem, it was not too big. But now the eyes that had been the happiest of his childhood looked tired and afraid.
When they were done, Mary came in to take the trays. “Now Mrs. Wallace, you haven’t eaten but a bit of your dinner.”
“I tried to eat, Mary. Don’t make me eat more,” she pleaded, looking up at her.
“Well, just eat some of those peas you haven’t touched while I take Mr. Mitchell’s tray to the kitchen.”
Peas fell from her fork as she brought it to her mouth. Mary came back and took the tray. “That’s good enough for now, dear.”
Mary’s approval reassured her. Mitchell saw his grandmother relax.
“I don’t see anyone anymore. Where’s all the old gang you used to bring down? We used to play all the old songs, roll up the rug in the living room, and dance. Remember?”
He didn’t remember. It was almost like panic. He didn’t know which generation she had placed him in. Did she think he was his uncle, or one of his grandfather’s friends?
“I’m just an old woman now. Everything seems to have changed. I don’t understand what happened. Even H. Mitchell never seems to be here, and he was never like that.”
She watched her grandson closely, as if he might provide some clue.
“It makes me wonder…I wonder if there’s something I don’t know about?”
Mitchell realized that she was asking if his grandfather had another woman. It stunned him. The pain of it. That something as strong as their marriage could be doubted and lost. Anything could be taken away. He was afraid to tell her, but there was no one else. He lit a cigarette. He leaned toward his grandmother, clasping his hands.
“Granny, I’m your grandson, Mitchell.” He paused. She stared at him.
“My grandfather, your husband, H. Mitchell, passed away. He died eight years ago.”
She looked like he had hit her. Her face went slack. Slowly anger reanimated her.
“Why do you say this when you know it’s not true? Why do you want to hurt me?”
“Granny, I don’t want to hurt you.”
He thought, I’ve done the wrong thing. His resolve left. He felt he couldn’t finish it.
“What I told you is true. Granddaddy passed away.”
She continued to stare at him. He drew on his cigarette, not wanting to look back. He wanted to run outside. His grandmother seemed to be trying to figure out what was wrong with him.
Finally she said, “I’ll prove it to you.” She picked up the phone and dialed.
“Operator, I want to speak to H. Mitchell Wallace.” She paused, irritated.
“Well, I suppose he’d be at the club.
“The Waterbury Club.
“Well, of course in Waterbury, Connecticut.”
Mitchell marveled at the patience of the operator, that she was able to get the call through.
“Hello… Yes, I would like to speak to H. Mitchell Wallace… He’s been a member of the club for a great many years… I’m his wife, Mrs. Wallace…
“I see. Yes, I’ll try again later. Thank you very much.”
She hung up the phone and turned to her grandson. Her eyes were clear and alive with triumph.
“They said he isn’t there yet.”
Mitchell felt terribly alone. He imagined the kind, well-intentioned man at the club desk. Perhaps he had worked there when his grandfather was alive.
Mitchell heard a voice that didn’t seem his own.
“Maybe you can reach him later.”