Issue 139, Summer 1996
St. Jude: that prosperous midwestern gerontocracy, that patron saint of the really desperate. The big houses and big cars here filled up only on holidays. Rain pasted yellow leaves to cars parked in blue handicapped slots. Teflon knees and Teflon hips were flexed on fairways; roomy walking shoes went squoosh, squoosh on the ramps and people movers at the airport.
Nobody laughed at seniors in St. Jude. Whole economies, whole cohorts, depended on them. The installers and maintainers of home-security systems, the wielders of feather dusters and complicated vacuums, the actuaries and fund managers, the brokers and tellers, the sellers of sphagnum moss and nonfat cottage cheese and nonalcoholic beer and aluminum stools for sitting in the bathtub with, the suppliers of chicken cordon bleu or veal Parmesan and salad and dessert and a fluorescently lit function room at $13.95 a head for Saturday night bridge clubs, the sitters who knitted while their charges dozed under afghans, the muscular LPNs who changed diapers in the night, the social workers who recommended the hiring of the LPNs, the statisticians who collated data on prostate cancers and memory and aging, the orthopedists and cardiologists and oncologists and their nurses, receptionists and bloodworkers, the pharmacists and opticians, the performers of routine maintenance on American-made sedans with inconceivably low odometer readings, the blue-uniformed carriers of Colonial-handicrafts catalogues and pension checks, the bookers of tours and cruises and flights to Florida, the projectionists of PG-rated movies at theaters with Twilight Specials, the drafters of wills and the executors of irrevocable trusts, the radio patrolmen who responded to home-security false alarms and wrote tickets for violating minimum-speed postings on expressways, the elected state officials who resisted property-tax reassessment, the elected national representatives who kept the entitlements flowing, the clergy who moved down corridors saying prayers at bedsides, the embalmers and cremators, the organists and florists, the drivers of ambulances and hearses, the engravers of marble markers and the operators of gas-powered Weed Whackers who swept across the cemeteries in their pollen masks and protective goggles and who once in a long while suffered third-degree burns over half their bodies when the motors strapped to their backs caught fire.
The madness of an invading system of high pressure. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a mockery, a lust gone cold. Gust after gust of entropy. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows and light on yellowing zoysia. The old swamp white oak rained acorns on a house with no mortgage.
Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. Distantly the drone and hiccup of the clothes dryer, the moan of a leaf blower, the smell of apples, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the brush from his morning painting of the porch furniture. At three o’clock the fear set in. He’d awakened in the great blue chair in which he’d been sleeping since lunch. He’d had his nap and there would be no local news until five o’clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections raged. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid.
Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. We should imagine it as one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that sends school children into the street in fire drills, and we should imagine it ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of “bell ringing” but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper going ping-ping-ping-ping-ping against a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their head for as long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound. Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and Alfred—she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table—each felt near to exploding with anxiety.
The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing boxes of candles in designer colors, also utensils of pewter and silver in flannel bags. Overlaying these accessories for the dinner parties that Enid no longer gave was a stratum of furtiveness and chaos, because these dining-room drawers often presented themselves as havens for whatever Enid had in hand when Alfred was raging and she had to cover up her operations, get them out of sight at whatever cost. There were coupons bundled in a rubber band, and she was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red ink by the manufacturer, a reminder to act quickly while the discount opportunity lasted) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded $60 (potentially $120 at the supermarket on Watson Road that doubled coupons), and which she had clipped months before their expiration, had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years.
She pushed the coupons back in among the candles and shut the drawer. She was looking for a letter that had come by registered mail some weeks ago. She had stashed it somewhere quickly because Alfred had heard the mailman ring the bell and shouted, “Enid! Enid!” but had not heard her shout, “Al, I’m getting it!” and he had continued to shout, “Enid!” coming closer and closer, and she had disposed of the envelope, presumably somewhere within fifteen feet of the front door, because the sender was The Axon Group, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenkville, PA, and some weeks or perhaps months earlier she had received a Certified letter from Axon that for reasons known better to her than (thankfully) to Alfred she had been too anxious to open immediately, and so it had disappeared, which was no doubt why Axon had sent a second, registered letter subsequently, and this entire circumstance was something she preferred to keep from Alfred, because he got so darned anxious and was impossible to deal with, especially regarding the situation with Axon (which, thankfully, he knew almost nothing about), and so she had stashed the second letter as well before Alfred had emerged from the basement bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment, “There’s somebody at the door!” and she’d fairly screamed, “The mailman! The mailman!” and he’d shaken his head at the complexity of it all.
She felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn’t have to wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to. It seemed to her that he had become somewhat depressed, and that he ought, therefore, to try to take an interest in life. She encouraged him to take up his metallurgy again, but he looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. (She didn’t understand what was so wrong with a friendly suggestion like that; she didn’t understand why he had to be so negative.) She asked whether there wasn’t some work he could do in the yard. He said his legs hurt. She reminded him that the husbands of her friends all had hobbies (David Schumpert his stained glass, Kirby Root his intricate chalets for nesting purple finches. Chuck Meisner his plaster casts of great monuments of the ancient world), but Alfred acted as if she were trying to distract him from some great labor of his, and what was that labor? Repainting the wicker furniture? He’d been repainting the love seat since Labor Day. She seemed to recall that the last time he’d painted the furniture it had taken him only a few hours to do the love seat. But he went to his work shop morning after morning, and after three weeks she ventured in to see how he was doing, and the only thing he’d painted was the legs. After three weeks! And he’d clearly missed a spot on one of the legs! He seemed to wish that she would go away. He said that the brush had gotten dried out, that that was what was taking so long. He said that scraping wicker was like trying to peel a blueberry. He said there were crickets. She felt a shortness of breath then, but perhaps it was only the smell of gasoline and the dampness of the work shop that smelled like urine (but could not possibly be urine).
She fled upstairs to look for the letters from Axon.
Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up on the main floor—since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here—Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She did not think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferried materiel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare co-payment records and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab which demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address and naming no entity to which remittance might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground some where, and because of the constraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might suspect perhaps the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network news magazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred’s wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to “pitch” the whole lot of it if she didn’t take care of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids ever quite to take care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, and so the random Nordstrom’s shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semidetached would contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence—nonconsecutive issues of Good Housekeeping, black-and white snapshots of Enid in the 1940s, brown recipes on high acid paper that called for wilted lettuce, the current month’s telephone and gas bills, the detailed First Notice from the medical lab instructing copayers to ignore subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentary cruise-ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping beverages from hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two of their children’s birth certificates, for example.
Although Enid’s ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a guerrilla was the house that occupied them both. They had always aimed high in decorating it, and its furnishings were of the kind that no more brooked domestic clutter than a hotel lobby would. As without in prosperous St. Jude, so within chez Lambert. There was furniture by Ethan Allen.
Spode and Waterford in the breakfront. The obligatory ficus, the inevitable Norfolk pine. Copies of Architectural Digest fanned on a glass-topped coffee table. Touristic plunder—enamelware from China, a Viennese music box that Enid out of a sense of duty and mercy every so often wound up and raised the lid of. The tune was "Strangers in the Night.”