John Kuehl is Professor Emeritus of English at New York University. He is the author/editor of eleven books, most recently, Alternate Worlds: A Study of Postmodern Antirealistic American Fiction (New York UP, 1989) and F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York UP, 1991).
She looked exactly the way they claimed, the hostess of the South Shore Senior Citizens Center decided, watching the newcomer sashay up the front walk one bright April afternoon. Even from behind half-shut Venetian blinds you could see her blonde curls beneath that jaunty pillbox hat and her trim legs below that smart lavender coat. Yes, this girl definitely qualified as "perky," a condition the hostess pitied and scorned, since "perky" was synonymous with "silly."
"Thank God, I'm plain!" whispered the hostess, well aware of her yellow-grey bun, sagging bosoms, flabby stomach, awesome buttocks. Both were sixty-five, yet the newcomer might pass for fifty and thus help deflect the few men away from the hostess, not that any man ever showed much interest except perhaps their only Jew, Nathan, who once admired her best faux pearls and suede gloves. As an unmarried woman, the hostess envisioned them swarming around the newcomer, a widow, like ants attacking molasses. Every prospective "sister" must be warned—though discreetly—about these local lechers, by definition all the male members.
"On behalf of the South Shore Seniors, welcome! I want to express our sympathy over the recent demise of your spouse and our hope you will find consolation here. We have a club named after each day of the week, but before you tell me whether you want to be a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday girl, let's take the grand tour!"
The hostess, a retired high school English teacher, felt proud to have been chosen by the others as public relations officer. Despite appearing "ordinary," she possessed considerable self-confidence, thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt, the brilliant and compassionate wife of a patronizing philanderer, whom her mother always held up as the perfect role model, exclaiming, "Not even those buck teeth could stop that woman from moving mountains!" She also felt proud because they had known enough to select a capable individual rather than mindless Dotty Bitto or helpless Virginia Shook. Many of them, alone for the first time in their lives, needed protection from charlatans, and the men lurking about the place were part of that problem.
Taking the newcomer's hat and coat, the hostess noticed firm breasts and snug buttocks. She thought "trouble," but said, "This way, please." When the newcomer smiled, flashing her very own teeth, the hostess silently condemned her for too much eye shadow and pink rouge. No doubt about it, June Petersen was sexually vulnerable, what Tony—the "Italian Stallion," as vulgar Vera Stetson called him—would consider "a doll."
They visited the library first, though the hostess believed it unlikely dolls read much. Still, this particular one might wish to thumb through something light—say a movie or fashion magazine. To each his—her—own, resolved the hostess, the only member at South Shore, with the exception of the Shook woman, who had read the unabridged Moby-Dick from cover to cover. She fondled the new Encyclopedia Britannica, remembering that Nathan's daughter, the college professor, had given him a complete set of Bernard Malamud, which he presented to the hostess with the words, "I quit school after my bar mitzvah in Poland. You're an educated lady, so here." All these books but one were visible on a far shelf. The absent volume—an inscribed copy of The Assistant ("For Kate Haws/Love/Nathan Lasker")—was kept at home.
"Two married daughters? How nice! And five grandsons? Goodness! We must stop at the day-care facility then."
That promised, the hostess steered Mrs. Petersen down the hall, and soon they stood outside the Center's "Orange Room," full of tots, where both gazed through the partition at two ancient baby sitters. "Just what the doctor ordered," beamed the hostess, citing the benefit depressed Mr. Edwards and crippled Mrs. Brady derived from this company, yet simultaneously realizing that thirty-five classroom years of trying to civilize the unruly monsters such infants always became dictated a personal preference for Edwards' pit bull and Brady's parrot.
She was thinking about her cats, Hester Prynne and Major Barbara, when the newcomer inquired about "those impressive stuffed animals" scattered around the "Orange Room." Because Kate Haws disapproved of the trips Nathan Lasker made to thrift shops and rummage sales for them, there was no response.
Rather, she dodged the question by announcing, "Here's our cafeteria," then ushered the newcomer to the middle of the spacious though cluttered area next door, regarding her guest an American tourist and herself a European guide. So tour talk was in order. During the morning, the newcomer learned the "gang" played cards at these tables, which occasionally doubled for bingo games, and during the noon hour, more than a hundred ate lunches on them. "Soup and sandwiches? Heavens no! Why, only last week we had beef stew, chicken pot pie, ham supreme, vegetable lasagne, and Texas chili." Afraid that her voice would betray desire should she mention cheese cake, cherry pie, and chocolate mousse, and that jaunty June might ogle her stoutness, the hostess skipped the dessert menu. Instead, adopting a grave tone, she brought up the subject of medicine. You could be the picture of health, like poor Mabel Mertz, yet be suffering from some incurable disease. That's why the Center, protective of body as well as soul, urged local doctors, dentists, and dieticians to lecture its flock once a week and to provide such things as free blood pressure tests and flu shots. But Kate Haws, remembering how much the cuff and the needle hurt her fleshy arms last time, silently resolved to miss the next screening. "Now for the biggest surprise of all," she boomed as they entered the South Shore auditorium that presently held several animated folk. "We usually show newcomers around when we're partying. Today Selma Beasley over there in the wheelchair is eighty-eight years young." She waved at the lucky "birthday girl" located among others supported by walkers and canes, then marched directly to the refreshment table.
Here Nathan Lasker, billowy white hair looking thicker than ever, distributed cake and coffee. As Kate introduced June, she glanced at his flashy sport-coat, probably one of those hand-me-downs inherited from Nathan's son , the surgeon, whose loud, foul-mouthed wife purchased all the family clothes. Since the night he had brought some beautiful stamp albums to "Show and Tell" and explained each mount in loving detail, the sisters had supplemented this wardrobe with silk ties, leather gloves, and woolen scarves. The hostess, scorning such foolish extravagance, had nevertheless been impressed by the artistic way Mr. Lasker arranged those stamps, treating each like a Michelangelo; but was that any reason for spoiling the man?
"My God, what a magnificent head of hair!" exclaimed Mrs. Petersen.
"Humph!" rejoined Kate, watching Nathan's tremulous right hand flood their trays with coffee while he leaned toward them visibly enchanted. After she broke his spell by pointing to the soggy cake and melting ice cream, he vowed to prepare new trays right away, falling all over himself with apologies.
"Come!" commanded the hostess, but the newcomer still lingered behind. Several blue-haired widows, who had been dancing together, saw them and tottered forth to offer greetings. They clasped June Petersen's fingers warmly, yet Kate Haws knew they were only sizing up her face and figure to determine how much sex appeal this spunky young stranger might exert on the half dozen eligible men occupying wooden chairs along the nearest wall as so many bumps on a rotten log. She detected an air of disappointment when the well-wishers realized the newcomer wore no glasses, no hearing aid, no dentures; nor did the intruder appear gnarled, wrinkled, or shriveled, though there was always the possibility of incontinence, maybe heart trouble. With cardboard hats and flowery prints, the blue-haired ladies reminded the hostess of silly girls ready to play Spin-the-Bottle and Post Office at adolescent functions.
Back then, as sex-crazed virgins, she imagined they envied chums lucky enough to go steady; now, as sex-crazed widows, they were jealous of the few married women among them. Kate felt sorry for all females needful of males, poor weak creatures!
Shaking her head in disgust, she fetched the trays, and, when the music began to blast again, escorted June toward the rear of the auditorium, a shadowy place where tables for chess, ping-pong, and pool stood. Their progress was impeded by a slender man who glided across the floor more gracefully than any Roseland regular, sporting an elegant imported suit and shiny patent leather shoes. The man's olive skin glistened and mischievous eyes twinkled, but Kate Haws, never one to be easily fooled, knew that his pencil-thin moustache and long sideburns were dyed black to match his rakish, slightly askew toupee. Obviously, on some prearranged signal, the Negro pianist—introduced earlier as an ex-big band musician—started playing "Always," and the slender man bowed before the newcomer, arms extended, whereupon her protector intervened. "No, Tony!" she barked, pledged to defend this vulnerable blonde from the clutches of the notorious "Italian Stallion," whose seductions frequently involved Irving Berlin.
Clearing the chess pieces from the closest table, Kate put down their refreshments and motioned June toward the chair opposite hers. She asked for facts in order to determine which club would be most suitable and discovered that Mrs. Petersen met Mr. Petersen at college and helped manage his accounting firm before becoming pregnant. Since this bio did not reveal any likes or dislikes, Kate patted June's wrist reassuringly and suggested, "I'll describe our clubs, dear, then you tell me your personal preference." The newcomer was informed that Monday members often visited Bucks County in search of antiques and Tuesday members Atlantic City for gambling and dining. Members of the three remaining clubs also traveled: Wednesday people to museums, Thursday people to rustic settings, Friday people to bargain outlets.
During the recitation of additional activities, the hostess noticed that Mrs. Petersen nodded politely yet kept gazing toward the dance floor, where evanescent Tony floated like Fred Astaire and ubiquitous Nathan galumphed like Mr. Ed. Their dancing styles were as different as everything else about them. Not only did the former Manhattan maitre d' wear tasteful garments and jet-black hair-piece while the former Bronx grocer displayed second-hand suits and silver mane, but the first, who was tall, thin and dark, engaged each partner, embracing, dipping, twirling her, while his antipode, who was short, chunky and red, resembled a tipsy top, shaking shoulders, snapping fingers, stomping feet. Tony finished with the music; Nathan merrily bobbed about afterwards, oblivious of its cessation.
Kate noticed with annoyance that when she tried to pin down the newcomer, June looked bewildered, then slowly brightened, posing a query of her own: which club did Tony and Nathan choose? Alarmed, she, Katherine D. Haws, felt this feather-head must be warned just how dangerous pursuing the one and futile pursuing the other were. To delay meant another simple-minded widow would bite the dust.
They represented the Tuesday Club, the hostess reluctantly divulged, a club that, if she had her way, would be abolished because it fostered self-indulgence. True, the casinos gave seniors vouchers, yet those Atlantic City excursions encouraged them to squander their precious money on sinful games and their even more precious health on greasy foods.
In view of the Atlantic City connection, the hostess experienced no surprise years ago when Doris Hildebrand mentioned that the two men first met at another disreputable spot—TenPin Alleys—where they bowled for the South Shore Septugens. Tony was married then to his wealthy third wife, but dragged Nathan all over, including the notorious Saturday night Greyhound races. The hostess, who recounted these awful events to Mrs. Petersen, was as puzzled as Doris why Nathan Lasker should want to be seen with the likes of Tony Alfano, for neither thought Jews ever drank or gambled. Besides, everybody knew that Nathan lived on social security checks in a bungalow near the beach despite the income of his affluent son.
"Was Mr. Lasker married when he began running around with Mr. Alfano?"
"No. His wife died thirty-five years ago." As the newcomer sighed, either with empathy or relief—one couldn't tell which—Kate quickly added, recollecting Nathan's fraternal attitude toward her, "He avoids romantic attachments."
"What about Tony's wife?"
"Number three died of a stroke last July."
"Things changed after that," Kate Haws smugly observed, eager to continue her parable of male perfidy. Fittingly, a rupture between the "Hardy Boys," as other seniors termed them, began in Atlantic City on a Trump Castle weekend. One night, near the slot machines, they encountered Lily Fairlace, a sixty-three-year-old member of the Thursday Club who had seen enough mountains and lakes. Tony, smitten at first sight, dubbed her "gorgeous," though nearly everyone else agreed this lady was short and skinny, thin-haired and red-faced.
"Did Nathan like her?"
"Who knows? But she liked him!"
"Tony's Tony." Which meant he snuck off the next morning, unbeknownst to Nathan, after Lily's phone number, and the following week made several desperate calls. Finally, reluctantly, Lily accepted a date, confided the still dismayed hostess, "because her other half died awhile back and the poor old girl felt lonely." She looked Mrs. Petersen in the eye: "That's what our Center is all about."
Admonished or not, the latter was soon staring at the dance area again. There, Mr. Alfano and Mr. Lasker were having a lively conversation with the ex-big band musician. They seemed to be on the friendliest terms now, clasping each other's shoulder as both chuckled over something the pianist said. Viewing this amiable scene, June expressed satisfaction that Lily had not come between them. "Untrue, but it wasn't her fault," Kate explained. "First, Tony quit bowling with Nathan because of a "bad back," though his brother-in-law admitted he still bowled with everybody else; then, Tony stopped carting Nathan around, even to the races, and gave up their club, which he liked, for Lily's, which he didn't. When the others heard about the separation of the 'boys,' they were shocked, except for 'moi,' who knew what Ann Brooke told Sally Evarts Lily told Janice Eldridge: that Tony feared competition from Nathan, since Lily preferred him, plaid jackets and all."
As the newcomer tipped her head in approval, the hostess shook hers in disbelief.
"The widow Fairlace needed a man, that's clear," commented Mrs. Petersen.
Kate Haws labeled this need "childish," yet conceded the point and took another tack. "To choose an indifferent prospect over an attentive one made no sense." Despite characteristic male flaws—womanizing, drinking, gambling, swearing—Tony was a much better "catch" than Nathan, she argued. He could discourse; he could dress; he could dance. And while Nathan wasted time collecting stamps, his more talented sidekick painted watercolors. "Besides, it's all academic."
"Lily married Tony and they honeymooned in Italy." Kate fell silent for a moment picturing Shakespeare's Genoa, Dante's Florence, Mann's Venice.
"What happened to Nathan?"
"He was the only senior to miss the wedding."
"We think Tony snubbed him."
"That doesn't sound right," protested June Petersen, who, with unexpected conviction, provided another scenario, according to which Nathan Lasker adored Lily Fairlace but unselflessly relinquished her because Tony Alfano required a new wife and she a new husband. In her scenario, this heartbroken man voluntarily avoided his two friends' "marriage of convenience."
"You're a hopeless romantic, my dear. Look over there! The loner and the lecher are inseparable again."
"Of course. It's Nathan's nature to love Tony too. Why, I'll bet the newlyweds took him with them, in spirit at least, on their honeymoon!"
"Well, they did bring back something special for Nathan," Kate acknowledged, recalling how Pamela Spacks, a former art teacher colleague, gushed about an expensive Wailing Wall oil Tony purchased in the Venetian ghetto. Though June Petersen was not her cup of tea, there was a second fact Kate also felt compelled to reveal, for, they were, after all, both female: "Lily died last December."
"Yes. That makes four he's buried."
"What terrible luck!" Kate Haws bristled at the word "luck," yet kept mum. Nor did she mention Nathan giving Lily a baby doll because the sick girl had never owned one during her impoverished childhood. This Petersen woman would believe his hospital visit and gift were "romantic" even if you disclosed the fact that Nathan, as chairperson of the Sunshine Committee, was obligated to cheer up bedridden members. So, instead, the hostess cautioned, almost inaudibly, "Forewarned is forearmed."
Meanwhile, the newcomer, obviously a trained homemaker, proceeded to tidy the table, something slovenly Lilymay she rest in peace—never did. But neither had the deceased ever applied makeup publicly, as Miss Clairol was doing. Like herself, Lily shunned mascara, powder and lipstick, which probably explained why that harlot Evelyn Dinks considered them homely. Anyway, the newcomer abruptly closed her heart-shaped compact as the piano player banged out some lively jazz tune. Delicate fingers drummed the table and tiny shoes tapped the floor in rhythm. Afraid this Junebug might pop up and twirl a baton or turn a cartwheel, Kate rattled their dishes, then stated flatly, "Time to go."
"Mutt and Jeff," she mused, crossing the auditorium again, conscious of her big shapeless body behind a small curvaceous figure, whose trim legs and snug buttocks seemed insolent. Fortunately, the birthday party was over, so few noticed their departure. All the men had vanished except Nathan, still hard at work gathering crepe paper and empty coffee cups. A handful of blue-haired widows also remained, but ignoring these molting hens, Ms. Daws pushed Mrs. Petersen into the hall without bidding farewell even to Selma Beasley, now a bit tipsy as the exhausted musician steadied her wheelchair. Again they passed cafeteria, day-care facility and library. In the vestibule, while Kate handed back the pillbox hat and the lavender coat, June displayed gratitude for the "instructive tour and invaluable discussion."
"Which club will it be?"
"Oh, the Tuesday one."
"I'm not surprised."
Then the merry widow sashayed out the front door and Kate Daws resumed her vigil behind half-shut Venetian blinds. From there, she could see Mrs. Petersen admire the flower beds clustered at the foot of the Center's red brick facade, where tulips, daffodils and crocuses thrived. From there, she saw her wander among pink and white dogwood trees, oblivious of Tony Alfano rolling bocci balls nearby. He smiled, but June retreated without a word. At the main gate, this latest newcomer turned around, signaling "good-bye" to Kate, who, as hostess, felt vindicated.
Only for a moment, though, because, unobserved until now, Nathan Lasker, looming in the doorway like Neptune rising from the sea, ardently waved back.