This is not an easy tale to tell, Officer, but if you pay attention, I guarantee you’ll understand. I realize I should have known better than to let a guy pick me up in a bar. Tears after bedtime – sometimes even before. But what are bars for? And he had such an original line. And he himself was an original. Moments like that keep a girl getting up in the morning. I know what with your work you’re probably jaded. But let me assure you, lots of us still seek a “gloves off” experience.
Without that narrow skull he would have been soap-opera handsome. His profile was perfect, but when he faced you head on, you couldn’t help feeling something was missing. And his haircut was strange – very curly at the top and nothing at the sides. Yet he was dressed like he came from money. I found it fun imagining him with long curly locks and a point-lace collar. Little
And then, as I said before, he packed such a refreshingly different line!
“I’d like to take you home to meet my grandmother,” he told me. I mean, come on! How often does a girl hear that sort of thing in a bar? Never even asked who I was. Never showed the slightest interest in my name. In a bandage dress and gladiator heels you wouldn’t have taken me for a Granny’s girl.
“Would you now?” I teased. “And why’s that?”shuddered as he glanced around at my competition.
“You look just like Patsy,” he said. He “These other girls are wearing – underwear for clothes.”
That’s the fashion. Straight from work, they’d probably eagerly removed their suit jackets to show off their toned arms and their barely-there camisoles. I know I would, if I worked an office. Call it “Lewd Friday”.
He continued, “I dine with Gran once a month and she always insists that I bring Patsy. You don’t mind if she calls you Patsy, do you?”
“I’m not sure.” As I said before, this was totally new. Truth to tell I was a little tired of my life.
Anonymity, incongruity — the chance to play at being someone else did appeal in some strange kind of way. Still, a girl owes it to herself to check for lust murderers and anyone recently released from any kind of institution.
“So what happened to Patsy?”
He shook his head. “There is no Patsy. Let’s say Patsy is more of an ideal than a person.”
A compliment? Maybe. Never been called an ideal and asked to meet the granny in my whole life before, and I’ve been around the track. Sometimes I was the greyhound, sometimes the electric bunny. He paid my bar tab and his, taking it for granted that I’d agreed to go. Point number two in his favor: nobody pays for anybody anymore. But I remained somewhat leery as we exited into the parking lot, aware that at the last moment I could always break into a run. Let’s say I’ve learned to run in heels.
“Is it far away? Don’t tell me it’s in Pennsylvania someplace.”
“Oh no,” he said. “It’s only two exits up.”
He drove a pretty old Alpha, lemon yellow with wood grain and leather interior. Nicely taken care of. Quite a distinctive car. Point number three. It decided me. Everyone knows serial killers drive muscle cars. American.
Still, I jumped at the chance to inspect the trunk when he offered. Can’t be too careful.
“Would you like a blanket? I have one in the boot. The heater’s a bit iffy.”
The trunk contained dark brown luggage and a gift basket. No crowbar, no rifle, no chainsaw, not even a tire iron that I could see. Point four. Nick extracted a plaid blanket and tucked it over me as I crawled somewhat uncomfortably into the front bucket seat. In case I ever needed to, plan B was; throw the blanket over his head and grab for the keys. Tight squash even for two people.
I said, “You didn’t mention your name.”
“I’m Nick,” he said. “Nick Quilliver.” He acted as if I might recognize it. I didn’t.
Subtle to the end, I “jostled” the glove compartment till it fell open. Contained only maps. No knives, handguns, or tasers. Point five in Nicky’s favor. Of course God knew what he had in his luggage but whatever it was, he couldn’t get to it very fast.
“You have to bang on that thing,” he said, giving it the full fist. He wore a pinky ring on his right hand. Ancient signety-looking thing. Point for or point against? Too late. We were off. But since he’d paid my bar tab at least I had mad money. I’ve made it a point to pay in cash ever since I discovered that if you use a credit card they find it all too easy to track you down. You know. Stalkers. Call it the price of beauty.
It was a difficult car to have a conversation in since it rattled like a soapbox derby with the wheels coming off. But as one used to conversing in bars, I gave it my best shot.
“So Patsy is blonde?” I shouted.
“Patsy has long, old fashioned hair. That’s what Grandmother likes.”
I didn’t tell him the hair was no more real than Patsy was. Still, it was comforting to know I had the option of changing my appearance substantially, if this whole project went smash.
“Grandmother likes, or Nicky likes?” “My name’s not “Nicky”, he snapped. “And my name’s not Patsy.”
But he didn’t ask me what it really was.
Two exits bullshit; we went all the way to Queen of Prussia. First lie. I paid close attention to directions in case I had to guide a cab driver, so I gave up on conversation.
I was demanding a big house at this point and I wasn’t disappointed. Dd you see it? Pretty impressive; a stone mansion at the top of a hill, blazing with lights. You enter the drive between a pair of gender- bender lions that could have been in better shape. Or were they hyenas? I’ve heard hyenas can change sex when they feel like it. Just to spice things up.
Nicky drove around to the back, where the shape of the house was concealed by masses of ivy. There was an old-fashioned half-timbered carriage house but Nicky parked right outside the back door and threw his keys beneath the seat. He fetched the gift basket and we entered into a narrow cloakroom where piles of broken crockery stood in baskets right beside the door, and an assortment of Homer Winslow outerwear hung to the left. As soon as we stepped into the light of the kitchen a tiny woman rushed forward in a blast of scotch.
Nick’s grandmother was short, with iron- gray hair pulled back in a bun. She wore mannish black- rimmed glasses with very thick lenses behind which her eyes seemed to float like anxious fish in an unfamiliar aquarium. She was attired in a neat lace blouse and a gray skirt appropriate for fifty years ago. The effect was somewhat ruined by casually applied vivid red lipstick and huge chunky glass dime-store earrings that couldn’t have been real. They couldn’t have been.
Makeup, palette knife, bottle of Johnnie Walker, it’s a bad combination, I was thinking as she enclosed me in her surprisingly muscular arms. You have to be careful not to get any of it on you.
“Patsy! I’m so glad to see you. Have you been watching the war?”
“Which war?” I felt disoriented. Gran cocked her head to look at me in tense disappointment. “The War. We. Are. Having.”
“I don’t watch the news. It’s too upsetting.” Really I just don’t have the time. I hadn’t been coached but it seemed I’d said the right thing, because she nodded excitedly.
“I know you’re busy with the Online. But you must have heard this – the president is an alien.”
Poor president! I pictured him trying to cover up his reptilian feelers at press conferences. I glanced at my date but Nicky extruded no vibes.
“I never go online,” I hazarded. I mean, she was an old lady. Chat Roulette would probably kill her. “I prefer the papers.”
Her face broke into a delighted grin. “Bless you, Patsy!” Were those tears in her eyes? It had seemed a safe enough guess; over her shoulder I saw the kitchen table strewn with newspapers, and now that she bustled away with our coats, I got the chance to see they were super-mart tabloids. Explaining the “alien” comment.
We were in a kitchen so old-timey it should have been a museum. Metal counters, very tired green linoleum, green metal cabinets, and an iron range. At the table sat an ancient black woman who did not acknowledge our presence. She was carefully cutting articles out of the newspapers.
“Don’t bother with the coats, Edna,” shouted Mrs. Quilliver. “I’ve taken care of those. You make yourself busy with the canapés.”
It was so cold in the kitchen dinner appeared a hopeless project. Not to mention “canapés”. Looking closer, I saw that atop her unraveling sweaters Edna had pasted a “Hello, I’m Hannah” sticker. Maybe she would acknowledge us if Mrs. Quilliver ever got her name right. Possibly Hannah didn’t like being an ideal, more than a person.
Fortunately we still had the gift basket, which was assuming critical importance as Nicky toted it to the living room.
“I saw such an interesting interview with a soldier’s mother,” Mrs. Quilliver prattled on. “Soldiers need strong relationships with their mothers, wouldn’t you agree? It helps to keep them celibate.”
Conversation with Gran promised to be rough going. I’ll admit Patsy was flattened by that one. Clearly I should not say anything about lady soldiers. “Don’t ask don’t tell” seemed suddenly a sane-seeming policy this Patsy decided to adopt.
We passed through a long hall that probably ran the length of the house. I could see a muddy looking length of carpet, stairs disappearing upwards and a glass cases filled with moth-eaten dead things.
“My husband was such a collector,” said Mrs. Quilliver obscurely. She guided me to a wing chair upholstered in a particularly nasty green bargello.
“There,” she said. “I always think of this as Patsy’s chair. In fact, I’m leaving it to you in my will.”
Nicky finally spoke up. “Why bother with a will, Gran? Since you’re going to live forever.” He took
three silver goblets from a drinks cart and gazed at me meaningfully and asked,
There was no mistaking his allusion.
“Please,” I said. “And don’t be stingy with the lemon.”
There was a bottle of crème de menthe in the gift basket and I saw him doctor all our drinks. Didn’t taste too bad. Nick makes his “iced tea” super-strong.
Mrs. Quilliver said, “I wish I could offer you a glass of wine, Patsy, but Edna has A Problem and I feel we must be supportive.”
Nicky raised his goblet. “Here’s to outliving everybody else!” he toasted, saying to me sotto voce, “Gran will be ninety next birthday.”
Mrs. Quilliver rapped his arm and chortled in high good humor. “Age is just a number, darling.”
“What a party we’ll have,” sighed Nick, producing a Swiss army knife and attacking a lump of cheese from the basket. I watched hungrily. Sitting in a bar is hard work and a girl needs sustenance.
Hoping we had finally put “the war” behind us, I asked, “So what would you like for your birthday, Mrs. Quilliver?” You know, just trying to get on top of the spirit of the occasion, instead of under it.
“Well, I’d like you two to get married,” said the old woman. “But I don’t kid myself I’ll get my wish.”
She allowed her gaze to drift to a large painting that occupied a place of honor on the wall. It depicted four children, three fair-haired little girls and a dark haired boy, all dressed in Winnie the Pooh-era outfits. The girls sat on the floor playing with a Pekingese so badly painted it might have been a toy. The boy behind them held a bow and arrow.
“Ninety is such a magic year,” smiled Nicky. “There’s no telling what you’ll get.”
“I’d also like the dead to walk,” mused the old lady, “Just for one day. So I have somebody to talk to. It’s no fun being the winner if nobody knows you are. Can you believe they said I was such a runt I wouldn’t even grow up? They didn’t think I’d make it.”
“Triplets, “ Nick hissed at me in a stage whisper, gesturing to the painting. He spread out crackers and attacked a sausage next.
“The doctor said I would be slow.” Granma smacked her lips appreciatively over her drink. “He was completely wrong about everything.”
“That’s doctors for you,” I said, but both of them ignored me. It wasn’t Patsy’s turn to speak.
“You showed ‘em. You’ve led a charmed life, Gran,” Nick flattered the old lady. “Why bother going to the mountain if the mountain always comes to you?”
“That is not true,” snorted Mrs. Quilliver, “not true at all. No one knows my suffering. Everyone is dead but me.”
Did Nick’s strong iced tea accelerate or inhibit all this suffering, I wondered?
“But they’ve been dead so long,” Nick protested. “They were already dead when that was
Mrs. Quilliver looked thoughtful. “My poor father needed a memento. But they deserved to die. My sisters were so mean. They excluded me from their private language. And my brother kept shooting my pets and saying it was an accident. Death became them.”
I hoped she wouldn’t think Patsy should already know the story, because I was plenty curious. “Er – what happened, exactly?”
She was glad to tell it. “The day they died – they were disobedient as always. Skating where they had been told not to – and after they said to my face I couldn’t come!”
“Lucky you,” sighed Nick. He was bored. “See what I’ve been saying?” The crème de menthe was all used up. Round two was doctored from a silver pocket flask. Bourbon, by the taste of it. Not a guy in fear of mixing. I decided I‘d better pretend to drink.
Mrs. Quilliver still seemed angry. The past was not her happy place. “Then father adopted Peter and left him all his money. He said in his will that Peter should marry me, but Peter married someone else.”
I was riveted. “And then what happened?”
“I got Peter after all,” said Mrs. Quilliver loftily. “Things worth doing are worth doing well. How
forgetful you are, Patsy. But I suppose a short memory is useful in your business.”
Was Patsy in politics? I wondered.
Dearest Nick-Nick-Nicky helped me out. “We just love hearing that story,” he drawled. To me he said, “Gran doesn’t get the vapors. Gran gets even.”
“Clever,” I murmured. “So how did you do it? How did you get Peter after all?”
“He called me a “jolie laide”.” She giggled. “That means good in bed.”
Actually, I speak French. That’s not what it means.
Standing uncorrected, she continued. “There’s a certain lack of adventure in marrying one’s cousin. I don’t deny it. However, needs must when the devil drives.”
Hmmm. Who gave the devil the car keys? I was still trying to work this all out when Edna-Hannah appeared. To her home-knitted outfit she had added an old corduroy hunting hat with moth-eaten fur flaps.
“It’s because she hates noise,” Nicky whispered so stagily I was certain she’d overhear. But what she said was, “Dinner is served.”
“Nurse Jones will carve,” Mrs. Quilliver announced.
Placed as it was in the center of the house, the dining room was small and windowless. Its low ceiling made me feel we entered a cave. A masculine-looking woman in old-fashioned nurse’s dress was tackling a roast.
So there was food.“Hello Patsy,” said the nurse in a deep voice. “I think you like your meat well done?”
I didn’t, but the roast was almost incinerated anyway so why argue? Patsy had scarfed up sausage, it was too late for Patsy to pretend to go vegan now.
Nicky refilled his flask from a sideboard bottle labeled, “Lamp Black.” I grabbed a water-glass in self-protection.
At least the chairs were Mad Hatter armchairs into which we all could comfortably sink. I sat across from a dark painting depicting a fire at sea; overwhelmed by flames, a five-masted schooner was obviously sinking. Above Mrs. Quilliver’s head hung a painting of a huge black dog so hairy was faceless. The gold plate bore the legend: Mumbo, 1941-1949. You tell me what is the point of a dog portrait whose face you cannot see!
I couldn’t help noticing the nurse’s dark hairy arms as she passed me my plate. I was fairly certain “she” was a man. Another “ideal”? Was Mrs. Quilliver’s life “charmed” because it contained avatars, rather than people?
“Gravy?” croaked Nurse Jones.
“Bring it on,” I said, but Mrs. Quilliver shook her head disapprovingly.
“You can’t afford it,” she told me pointedly. “Too much of the damage is internal.”
“She’s such a tease,” said Nicky, out loud. “Don’t fall for it. Nurse, what’s the medical opinion?”
“Everyone gets gravy,” prescribed the nurse, slopping all our plates. “I insist. With the streets so dangerous there’s nothing to enjoy but food.”
“But Patsy’s lineage has so much heart,” complained Mrs. Quilliver.
Ain’t that the truth.
“Patsy will be fine,” said the nurse, resting a huge, work-roughened hand along my arm. “As long as she keeps up her exercise.”
“Speaking of sex,” said Mrs. Quilliver, turning her fog-lamps on me, “I trust you’re spending the night? I turned on the electric blankets in the Rose Room with my own hands.”
“I put them in the Blue Room, honey” said the nurse. “It’s got the bidet.”
It seemed I was dessert. I think I lost my usually hardy appetite at that exact moment. Studying the large black plate in front of me it seemed there was nothing I could eat. Was that kale, foxglove or collard greens?
I had to spend my time doing something. Usually adding up the shekels is occupation enough. My brother in the antiques business would certainly have remarked on all this silver. It was heavy enough and seemed ancient. Still, the room was so dark it might have been plate. I held my goblet to the candle in an effort to interpret the hallmark.
“Quis Custodiet Custodes.” quoted Mrs. Quilliver thrillingly, thinking I was trying to read the coat
of arms. “It’s the family motto. ‘Who out-cleans the cleanest?” .
Actually, I studied Latin. That’s not what it means. Bread was passed. Stale, of course. Think big croutons.
“Is this rice?”
Mrs. Quilliver demanded, showing me a bowl of mashed potatoes. “Edna knows I hate Chinese food. It seems so disloyal in light of the world situation.“
“It’s mashed potatoes, dear,” croaked the nurse.
“That woman will take any shortcut,” Mrs. Quilliver muttered obscurely. Nick refilled all our goblets. The “lamp black” smelled like peach schnapps.
As Nicky slid back into his seat, his foot brushed mine. Or was it the nurse? Or possibly both of them? And what about that look they gave me? Suddenly a moaning sound – human? – seeped into the room. I was so startled I dropped a knife. I could have ignored it if it weren’t for the thumping overhead. The chandelier tinkled threateningly. If I had had a hat with earflaps I would have out it on.
“She’s restless tonight,” said the nurse. “It’s the change in weather.”
“Well, can’t you knock her out for dinner?” snapped Mrs. Quilliver.
“You said no pain control,” Nurse Jones sighed regretfully. “I could give her a Xanax.”
“I’m not wasting my Xanax on her,” barked Mrs. Quilliver. “That defeats the point.”
Evidently everyone wasn’t dead. I had to think how Patsy identify this new player, seemingly banging a cane on the floor. The ceiling shook threateningly and the chandelier swung so enthusiastically I slid my chair back, ready to spring for safety.
“I’ll calm her down.” Mrs. Quilliver, Martyr, wiped her mouth and left a long red smear along the lace. “She just wants attention. She knows she’s being naughty.”
She walked to the stairs, stooped over, unmistakably, now a ninety-year old woman. I guess the prison guard is a prisoner too. In fact, that’s a much better translation of the “family” motto.
As her footfalls died away Nurse Jones coaxed Lady Gaga from the sideboard radio. “Just dance,” he/she sang, swaying to the music. Nicky rose eagerly. and they began to dance. I hoped they had eyes only for each other, but no such luck. They were both after me to complete their chorus line.
A threesome? Not very “original” after all, and not what I’d expected. Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“I take it you’ve tumbled to our little secret,” Nick said, flexing his eyebrows at me.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “It’s so dark in here there are probably plenty of secrets still uncovered. Like who is that upstairs?”
“Oh, that’s the first Mrs. Quilliver. Peter had to divorce her to marry Gran. But Gran promised to
always take care of her. “ He laughed. “Come on. Dance with us.”
“Give me a minute.” I rose. “I need to ”powder my nose.”
“There’s a nice big bathroom upstairs,” Nicky tempted. “Or a cloakroom cubby where you came
That’s just what I was hoping he would say, because I saw where he put the Alpha keys. I melted gracefully into the hallway and out through the kitchen.
Edna-Hannah sat at the table cleaning an ancient pistol which she had broken down in pieces on the newspaper in front of her. She barely looked up as I departed the house of the people who call things by their wrong names, but she did say goodbye.
Get it, Officer? I didn’t steal the car, I was trying to report a crime in progress. Clearly they were holding an old lady against her will. But how could I possibly have guessed what Edna-Hannah was planning, just because she was cleaning a gun? Guns need cleaning just like everything else and that entire house was a sink hole. She seemed fine, judging by the last thing she said.
She said, “You take care now.”Amen, sister. “Right,” I agreed. “Or be taken care of.”