They had chosen Kate to come get her and take her to mass, because her sons were too embarrassed to come into her room anymore. They waited in the lobby. Kate was Joe’s wife, she reminded herself. His new wife, not Catherine. She liked Catherine better. It was an unfortunate coincidence that they both were named Catherine, though the new one spelled it with a K and went by Kate. Dorothy didn’t like Kate very well, the name or the wife, though she didn’t know why. The girl was nice enough. (Well, woman, really. Kate was forty-six years old, but Dorothy never did like saying ‘woman’; it sounded sexual somehow, so she called everyone a girl until they were near her own age, and then they were a gal.) But the name: it was pretentious; it evoked movie-star arrogance. Katherine Hepburn insisted on being called Kate, Dorothy once heard.
Kate was sent because of the one time when Dorothy had needed help in the bathroom. David and Marjorie were taking her to church; one of those Sundays where they’d called ahead and said how about we take you to mass and then to Dixon’s for brunch after, and she was supposed to be grateful. The truth was she didn’t like Saint Boniface church. She didn’t like Father Bob, who insisted on being called Father ‘Bob’ instead of Father Whatever. No one even knew his last name, and he tried to be everyone’s friend. He had a little beard that made him look like a hippie. His homilies were always about justice and mercy, and he had an i-Phone and one of those bigger thingies. He apparently even had a Facebook page, of all things, and not for the church, for himself. He shared his ‘thoughts’ on there; little witticisms and jokes that were self-deprecating on the surface but really meant to show off what a great guy he was. Dorothy had looked. Everyone thought she couldn’t use a computer but they were wrong. She just didn’t like them. Easy enough to get one of the girls to look up Facebook for her. She’d asked Tina, the little Hispanic one. She looked like a child, and she wasn’t as bossy as the others. Didn’t ask a lot of questions.
Dorothy also didn’t like going to mass with David and Marjorie because her daughter-in-law, Dorothy felt, was a prig. Marjorie was one of those women who acted just so: made meals for Christ House and had Father Bob over for dinner dutifully once a month and took Dorothy to lunch every week, bringing her the Prevail undergarments she knew Dorothy preferred, because Belmont Ridge housekeeping staff used Depends, and Dorothy hated them. Prevails were better. Marjorie even brought Dorothy the particular brand of lemon cookies she was fond of. True, none of the boys did this, not David himself, or Joe or Jamie, but Marjorie always made Dorothy feel she was supposed to say how grateful she was for the visit and the cookies and the undergarments, which were just a precaution. And Marjorie wore a mantilla to mass. Dorothy had worn one herself in the 1950s when everybody did, but nobody wore them now, especially not at Saint Boniface where people came to mass in beach clothes and rubber shoes. Which of course was terrible, too. But Marjorie and David and their brood usually attended Saint Mary’s, where the priests went by their last names and on Fridays they even had mass the old way, with the priest facing the same way as the people. Well, she liked that better. Presumptuous, when they were turned forward. Too casual. But Marjorie was too pious. It was showy. St. Boniface was closer to Belmont Ridge, Dorothy’s home now. An upstairs room, she was quick to point out, not the first floor where they called it ‘assisted living.’ The first floor was all the droolers in wheelchairs.
Everyone was driving out for mass and brunch this time: Joe and Kate and their kids, David and Marjorie and their kids, and Jamie. Jamie would have that girl with him. That Stephanie. He would meet them there, he said, and Joe and Kate were the ones picking her up. Now Dorothy would have to sit by them in the church so they could all feel good about themselves for taking old Dorothy to mass, and then go to Dixon’s for omelets that were never all the way done in the middle; the fellow made them too fast. The bread basket was good, though. Cinnamon raisin.
Kate knocked now, and then opened the door, smiling. Why did people do that: knock, as if you had a choice, and then open the door without being told to come in? A formality, but not formal at all. Familiar. Pointless, if they weren’t even going to wait.
“Hi there,” Kate said, leaning down to kiss Dorothy’s cheek. She always said hi there, not hi mom or hello Dorothy, and always the breezy air kiss on the cheek. Dorothy knew it was because Kate didn’t know what to call her. Mom? Dorothy? Certainly not Mrs. Bowers, Kate herself was Mrs. Bowers now, too.
Kate looked pretty, actually, if a little tired. Always trying to look glamorous, that one. Soon she wouldn’t be able to pull it off anymore, Dorothy thought. Just wait. She was wearing a turquoise scarf with her jacket and her hair was down, but Dorothy looked away and heard herself say, “They brought my coffee cold, and I never even got to go to breakfast.” Kate seemed to have this effect on her; she was always complaining when Kate was around.
“Well, you can’t leave on an empty stomach,” Kate said, opening the cupboards as if she owned the place, already looking for something for Dorothy to eat. As if Dorothy would want anything in there. “You get ready and I’ll find something.”
“I can’t eat now, mass is in less than an hour and I’ll want to receive. And I am ready,” Dorothy said. She was. It was mass, not a fashion show. She was wearing her good wool skirt, too.
“Oh. Well, great!” Kate said, too brightly. Then, “Hey, why don’t you wear that green sweater we gave you for Christmas? That would go great with that skirt!”
“Fine.” Dorothy shuffled to her dresser to get the sweater, though her blouse was fine, if a little wrinkled. It looked like real silk, and it was still a nice shade of rose, though not the pink it once was. It was a perfectly good blouse; she didn’t like how Kate said the sweater would “go great” with her skirt. It wasn’t even correct grammar.
Joe Jr. had gotten out to open her door, smiling and giving her a good hug. “Hi, Mom,” he said, and she thought for the millionth time what a handsome man Joe turned out to be. A surprise, because he’d been an odd-looking child. Teeth too big for his face. He was turning fifty next year, but he’d stayed slim, and the gray hair looked good on him. Catherine-with-a-C was a stupid woman, to let Joe Bowers go, although he could be a bit aloof. Prickly, even, if you caught him at the wrong moment. And he was too caught up in his work; Dorothy always thought so. When his first child was born, Joe Jr. took only two days off. They didn’t have this ‘paternity leave’ back then, though they didn’t have it in Dorothy’s time, either, and she’d had four children without Joe Sr. ever having even one day off and she’d done just fine, thank you very much. But that first Catherine expected more, from day one, and Joe was always working. When the baby was two, Catherine-with-a-C put him in some silly music class where the child whacked around a tambourine or maraca, Little Maestros, it was called, and both parents were supposed to come, but Joe never wanted to. Dorothy knew this, because of the one time Catherine-with-a-C stood before her, teary, right before they’d announced to the world that their marriage had fallen apart, and asked her, “Did Joe Sr. ever come to things? You know…the kids’ things? When they were little? Because Joe never does. He says he can’t take time off during the week for things like that, and he doesn’t want to use time on Saturday for a music class for a two-year-old. As if Harper’s age were the issue.” One tear had escaped then, and she’d blown her nose loudly.
Dorothy had wanted to tell her that no, Joe Sr. never came to things like that, because she would never have expected him to, and she would never have put a two-year- old in a three-hundred dollar class just to shake around a cheap maraca. She had another child by the time Joe was two-and-a-half, and they could play in the yard with sticks for free. You could make a maraca type of thing with a jar and some rice. But she just said “those were different times,” a phrase she thought made the point without too much blame, or not enough to take issue with. The marriage ended a month later. Little Harper was so young, they thought he wouldn’t know a thing, but that child didn’t use a toilet until he was four.
That was her first grandson’s name: Harper. A last name, and not even the first Catherine’s maiden name. Not a family name of any kind, just a name they “liked the sound of.” This was back when the only people who gave their children last names were southerners using old family names, and wealthy people wanting to establish a child’s patrician roots with a first name like Anderson, Bentley, or Greer. Now everyone used last names, it meant nothing now. By now, it was probably considered lowbrow. Her grandsons were Harper, Forrester and Cole, and the girls—the girls!—were Darby and Ryan. She would never get used to Ryan for a girl, and Darby was, well, not even a name, really. Thank goodness she was a pretty child, when she was not acting sullen, or absorbed in sending messages on her phone with her thumbs.
Ten o’clock mass was packed as usual; it always amazed Dorothy that this many people showed up, the same people who just the day before got drunk or cheated on their taxes or their wives. But they came. Some of the couples who showed up were not even married, but living in sin. Like Jamie. Father Bob turned a blind eye. Though Jamie didn’t belong to this parish and probably only went to mass when he went with the family. The girl, Stephanie, wasn’t any religion at all; she had a tattoo on her ankle, and was some kind of new-age veterinarian who gave acupuncture to dogs. She adored Jamie, was always holding his hand. Sure enough, she was there, too, in a dress that precluded wearing any sort of bra. She made Dorothy nervous. Clearly it was mutual.
After mass–Father Bright, the young one–gave an earnest homily about grace, and what it lacked in substance it made up for in sincerity–they all drove to Dixon’s, where they were given the back room. Dorothy didn’t want the back room, the back room was all booths. You had to scoot in, and then ask everyone to get out if you had to use the ladies’, or else you had to ask to sit on the outside in case you need to get out, which just caused speculation. And you couldn’t hang your purse over your chair. The light was better in the front room. Why didn’t anyone care about light anymore? “What’s wrong with up here?” she asked. There were several free tables.
They all paused, looked at Joe. “C’mon, Mom,” he said, putting a long arm around her as if she were a child. “There’s more room in the back. And I think I see some people I know back there.”
Oh, wonderful. Some people he knows. From what? From his job that she still didn’t understand, selling advertising on web sites? A ‘senior manager,’ he was called, but the time she tried to call him at the office and interrupted him, she’d said she thought she would reach his secretary. He’d said he didn’t have his own secretary, exasperation in his voice. So he couldn’t be very important there. In her day, an important man had his own secretary. These friends in the back room were probably computer people or slick advertising folks. And nobody told her! She would have done her hair better. It was a little flat on one side. Maybe worn a different blouse under the green sweater. This one was fine for every day, but not to meet your son’s friends, even if they were slick computer people. There was a little bit of something on the collar, she saw now; food or make-up or something. Nobody told her. She started to say you go see the people you know, I’ll wait up here, but the waitress or hostess or whatever she was had already walked ahead, and Joe was ushering her to the back room. He could really be so pushy when he wanted to be. Just like his father, before he got sick and became a big baby again.
Dorothy looked around. Why, there was something going on here already. They could move to the front room. She started to turn from these people, saw the look on her son’s face: delight, with a shadow of something else over it. Hesitancy, or nausea.
“Look, Mom, all your friends are here.” Dorothy turned again, aware of her easy spirits hugging the floor, making her feet heavy. What was this floor, linoleum? Slippery, and almost…magnetic, at the same time.
“See, Mom?” Joe was saying, Kate smiling by his side, David and Marjorie nodding vigorously, as if she’d said something clever. At least Marjorie had taken the lace off her head in the car. Her dress was quite nice, actually. A little too nice for Dixon’s. “See?” Joe was saying. “Penny and Stuart Miller are here! Hey Stuart!” He was looking around the room. “And Dr. Masterson and his wife, and Karen and Bob are here! And look, your friends from the old street: the Andersons, and Pete and Didi Heckman! And there’s Dutch Beckerly…everybody’s here, Mom!”
Dorothy looked around the room. Why were they all here? That was Didi Heckman, though the old neighborhood was two hours from here. Her hair looked awful, too. A bad dye job. Karen and Bob were really Joe’s friends, not hers. Why were they here? What was Dr. Masterson doing at Dixon’s? They expected her to say something.
“Oh, my!” she mustered. “What’s going on?”
There was a smattering of laughter. Joe grinned but there was that shadow again, like all the times when he was young and Joe, Sr. would tease him in that way where you didn’t know if he was kidding. If Joe brought home a B+ on a test, his father would say, “Whatsa matter, that the best you could do?” A joke, of course, a B+ was just fine. Or if one of the children made Joe Sr. a gift; a crooked clay pot or ashtray–this is back when it was okay to smoke–he’d open it and say, “What, is this all I get?” Teasing, of course, But not entirely, so the kids always looked confused. Joe looked like that now.
“Your birthday, Mom,” he said. Then, brighter: “Everybody came to celebrate your birthday!” Some clapping, a little cheer, and then both Andersons started in with Happy Birthday to Yoooooo, and everyone joined.
“Goodness, how nice!” Dorothy ventured when it was over. Kate seemed to relax a little, and they made their way to a table, Marjorie saying let’s get you off your feet. “My birthday’s not for a month or two yet…” she said, shuffling. She was aware that she was shuffling. Was it her birthday? Or, had Joe forgotten the date?
“It’s next week, Mom. We picked a day everyone could come,” Joe was saying as he scooted in her chair. It didn’t scoot well on this floor. Was it some sort of tile?
“Dorothy!” Dutch Beckerly clapped her on the back, as if she were a man, Dorothy thought. “Happy birthday, Old Gal,” he boomed, and then shuffled off the omelet bar. That was shuffling. She wasn’t that bad, she just walked slowly. Dutch looked so old! Surely she didn’t look that old. And she did not shuffle.
“May I see a menu?” she asked Joe. A reasonable request.
“Well…sure Mom. Sure. But don’t you want to talk to people? To your friends?”
She hated how he pronounced it “dontcha wanna.” He didn’t get that from her. Then Marjorie piped in, “People want to talk to you, Dorothy…” She’d appeared out of nowhere, as always.
“Well, I’d like to eat!” Dorothy said, and just at that moment, Kate appeared with plate of food from the buffet for her, setting it down with a flourish. Loaded with potatoes, just the way Dorothy liked it.
“Oh, but the buffet is expensive, and I only get the one pla–“
“Mom! The price does not matter!” Joe said, in a fierce whisper.
“No, it doesn’t matter one bit,” Kate said smoothly. “They know this is your party, Dorothy. In fact the whole thing is paid for, and you can eat one plate of food or ten. Doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it!”
As if she would eat ten plates of food.
“Heh-ey, look who’s here,” she heard David say, and she knew without looking that Karen had come. She feigned surprise anyway when Karen leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Mom. Happy early birthday.”
There was a bit of a scuttle as her brothers all looked for an empty chair to pull up to the table, as though Karen were elderly herself. Of course, she wasn’t young either. Karen was no spring chicken. She’d be, what, fifty-something now. Strange, a daughter so old. She looked good, and Dorothy meant to say so, but what came out was, “Did you come alone?”
“Yes, Mom. I am alone. Nancy’s in Florence. You have me to yourself.” Karen smiled a wry smile as she put a napkin on her lap, a nod to one of her brothers that yes, she would like the buffet, just give her a minute. They were serving her, too, but leaving distance so the two of them could talk. Dorothy remembered now that ‘Nancy’ was in Florence. She worked in international marketing, Dorothy had been told several times through the years. Whatever that was. Pretentious; she would have thought so no matter who it was. “She says to tell you happy birthday.”
“Well.” Dorothy had no response, no message to pass along to the woman who was, as she still explained to people, her daughter’s roommate. As if they were twenty-two and sharing an apartment.
The bread basket was filled again (they put other kinds of bread in there now, probably it was cheaper, everyone was cutting corners these days, but there were still two pieces of cinnamon raisin), and nearly everyone had made their way to Dorothy’s table to say hello, even Penny and Stuart Miller, who both called her Dot. Stuart was pushing a walker that was too tall for him and made him look as if he were holding the bars of a cage, and Penny was prattling on and on. As usual. Dorothy decided to sit back and watch. Dixon’s was just the same as it had always been, except for the employees. They all recognized her now, but none of them really knew her. She’d been coming here for years and there was a time when they knew her, knew Joe Sr. and that he liked his coffee with milk and she took hers black. Now they knew nothing. She supposed it was nice of the boys to give her a party. Joe’s idea, probably. David would think it cost too much, or Marjorie would anyhow, and Jamie wouldn’t have thought of it. A big heart, that one, but no foresight, none at all.
Dorothy remembered another party, the only other party given just for her. She was nineteen, but everyone thought she was twenty. Her mother, not normally a vain woman, made Dorothy rinse three times with vinegar so her hair would be shiny. Her mother had known. And in her insistence on new stockings, a vinegar rinse, there was a tacit consent given. Dorothy’s mother disapproved of Jack Campbell, for his two-tone, cap-toe shoes, the flamboyant red of his silk tie. But she was a pragmatist; Dorothy had her father’s strong nose and eyes just slightly too close together. They couldn’t afford to be too picky. Jack Campbell was a war hero, they said, and a man who liked a challenge. He didn’t mind Dorothy’s height, and he said she looked like Marie McDonald. Which she did, at a certain angle.
Dorothy stared at the people, at nothing, and let her mind turn inside to the place where it slipped sometimes now, the way your foot will slip off a curb if you aren’t careful and sometimes even if you are. Only now she let it slip there, willed it, looking around this back room at Dixon’s, smelling the burnt oil of old hash browns, until it became something else entirely, and she could hear Frankie Carle playing, smell the sweat and the punch and the Brylcreem the boys had in their hair. Jack Campbell was dancing with her, his hand low on her back, his hips pressed against hers, even with hers, she was so tall. She’d met him there, as requested, and when she walked in the door, the band played “Happy Birthday,” and she had looked over her shoulder to see who they were playing it for. Surely not her? Jack Campbell laughed and took her hand, walked her out on the dance floor. Her birthday wasn’t until the next week, but she didn’t say so.
Jack Campbell thought she was beautiful and so she was. He had a Hudson Super 6, inherited from an uncle, parked outside. Later he would tell her the car didn’t really belong to an uncle, but to his cousin, Georgie, who died somewhere in Northern France, in something called ‘Operation Norwind.’ Such a pretty name, Dorothy thought, when so many of those things sounded ugly. Only eighteen months ago, Jack said. A great guy, but his time was up. Georgie loved that car.
He would tell her this and then wipe at his eyes with the bottoms of his palms, nearly his wrists, though his tears never spilled over, only turned his eyes a fierce blue. She’d remember that, the clumsy way he wiped at his eyes, like a school boy or a farmer. It made her feel motherly for a moment, which confused her. She knew nothing then of how you could feel different ways towards a boy, a man. But then he had shaken his head a little, as if to clear it, and smiled at her, the old Jack Campbell smile. He was talking about California now, a job waiting there for him. “Come with me, Kid,” he’d said, the emphasis on with, because he was going either way. It made Dorothy weak, how he called her ‘Kid,’ though years later when she thought of it–the rare times she allowed herself to think of it–it sounded absurd. They were in the corner, sitting out a slow dance, talking. Flirting. It was like speaking a language you weren’t entirely fluent in: you might understand the words, but only guess at the meaning.
He went on. “You’ll like it out there. Palm trees, pine trees, take your pick. Lemons. Limes, big as your fist. Year round.” He took her hand then, gently curling her fingers into a fist, then putting his hand around it. They both starred at their hands for a moment, a thing separate from them. “The ocean’s right there, blue sky, and it never rains.”
Dorothy couldn’t imagine a place where it never rained. The look Jack Campbell had in his eyes frightened her a little. He was in love with a place, and she understood in that moment that he belonged to the place more than he ever would to her, or to anyone else; that he was part of it already, and he wasn’t even there yet. Still, he wanted her to come. He didn’t say whether he meant for them to marry. She could not ask what he meant, it would reveal her uncertainty, spoil the moment somehow, the way planning the logistics of a trip spoils the daydreaming about it.
He knew anyway. He knew by the way she glanced down at her cup of punch, at the floor, instead of at him. He drew back, just barely, to look at her face, to make sure he’d seen correctly, then leaned in close again. A sigh, barely audible. His hand, still covering her fist, gave it a little squeeze as the band picked up, couples darting out to the dance floor again. A jitterbug, which the band always played when the sexual tension in the room got so thick you could feel it, taste it, suffocate in it. He didn’t lead her out to the dance floor gradually, he stood suddenly and grabbed her arm, almost shouting over the music, a sudden merriment in his voice when he said, “C’mon, Kid, let’s dance!” Shouted, really, because by then he was halfway there.
“Mom?” Karen was looking at her, the waitress holding the coffee pot over her cup. “No, thank you, I’m fine,” and the waitress disappeared. Dorothy could tell from the sharp turn of her heel and the posture of her back as she walked away that she’d been thinking ‘crazy old lady,’ or ‘boring old lady,’ or something that ended with old lady. They may have known it was her party, but they didn’t care, which was worse than not knowing. In fact the party was irritating the wait staff, it was clear.
Foot off the curb again, only it won’t go, even when she tries. But she can remember it, which isn’t the same as going back there; smelling it and tasting it and feeling nineteen, being nineteen, every sense heightened so much that she felt nearly dizzy all the time. It isn’t the same, but it’s close enough.
She remembers not just Jack Campbell, the red silk of his tie, wide-leg trousers since the war was finally over. There are other things, too: the blue of the sash on her dress the time her father took her to see Meet Me In St. Louis, the taste of the dill pickle he bought her in the lobby. The smell of starch on a hot iron, because her apron had to be cleaned and starched every night, Boeing insisted on it. Peach pie, in the red ceramic pie dish, because company was coming. Her mother, in a rare good mood, humming the Texaco Star Theatre theme song, singing the words out loud when she got to Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief… The sum of all these things together rose up in Dorothy’s throat and drifted out in front of her, becoming a thing she could almost touch; sepia-toned, and just out of her reach. She tried to tell Karen this once, years ago, when she had had too much wine. She wanted to tell somebody, to say this is how it was. She tried to tell her about the movie and the pickle, the starch and the peach pie, those handsome Texaco men, but Karen had rather absently said, “Huh…is that movie the one with Judy Garland, with that ‘clang-clang-clang’ song in it? I always thought that one was kind of boring.” Dorothy had given up then, rolled her eyes and said, “It’s nothing you people would understand.”
Karen waited a minute, two, and then said, “We have our own things, Mom. We do.” Dorothy couldn’t imagine what they were.
Now Dorothy is looking at people moving slowly around the omelet bar, but she is seeing those couples on the dance floor. The band has picked up even more, a Lindy Hop, so one moment the girls are stomping to the music, nearly leading, nearly in charge of the whole thing, but the next minute they are crushed against the boys’ torsos, limp. The dance so violent, the boys, even the agile ones, the best ones, are heaving with the effort, and the girls’ spines seem about to snap.