Alice Mullen sat in her doctor’s waiting room, reading over her living will. Her husband had advised her not to donate organs because of ghoulish rumors he’d heard, but Alice couldn’t pass up a last chance to try and compensate for her pettier moments on earth.
She’d just turned sixty-five. Sitting across from her was a couple who looked her age. The man, who was haranguing his wife, was clearly an Alzheimer’s case. His voice was weak, but his ornate facial gestures were as macabre as a villain’s in a silent movie. In her directives, Alice had requested the end of all treatment if she ever reached his state. She wanted to go as neatly as possible like an ideal tenant vacating property. No funeral, either. The least stress imaginable for her husband and daughters. She firmly believed the dying should do all they can to comfort the living.
Alice caught the man’s attention and he stared at her with catatonic focus while she feigned interest in an issue of People Magazine.
“I remember you!” he oafishly blurted out. “You’re June Flieger!’
Alice blanched. She‘d been born June Alice Flieger, but dropped her first name in her early twenties after the end of a misguided first marriage to an acid freak in college. She’d wanted a fresh start after her divorce and associated “June” with garish nights that floated into other dank apartments or smashed apart in emergency rooms. “June” had been raw and burned out. “Alice” would be resilient and poised.
“Junie!” he grinned broadly. No one had called her that since high school. “Junie Flieger!”
She was uncanny about recognizing faces, but had no idea who he was.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” His wife saw her distress, then mouthed. “He’s not well.” The woman was grey-haired and pretty with a martyr’s wistful smile.
“Goddamn you!” he looked outraged. “That’s Junie Flieger! I’ve known her since grade school, before I ever knew you!”
“George, calm down.” His wife kept her voice low and gentle as professionals instructed. “I believe you.”
“I don’t give a shit if you do or not.” Her stoicism filled him with adolescent contempt. It was strange how dementia patients seemed all ages at once as if the condition dissolved linear boundaries. He got up, sauntered over and sat next to Alice.
Alice realized it was George Vanderveer, an old classmate of hers. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been in his teens, a plush, blond boy who radiated the arrogance of a Viking prince. Now, he was white-haired and scrawny, dressed in a hoodie and sweat pants like a toddler. Maybe, he was wearing a diaper, too. His wet blue eyes looked suddenly pleading and she was jarred by the love seeping out of them. All her memories of him were terrible.
The worst recollection was of him and a gang of boys mauling her and another girl in the halls of her high school between classes. While they’d pummeled and groped her, she’d stiffened her body as if playing dead. Teachers must have seen it, but didn’t interfere as long as the girls’ clothes weren’t ripped off. In those days, incidents like that were looked on as ‘letting off steam.’
“Junie, don’t be mad at me,” he begged as if reading her mind. Her own mother had been borderline and Alice knew unbalanced people could be downright clairvoyant once their churning brains rested.
“Does he know you?” the wife asked and Alice shook her head. She often pretended she didn’t recognize distasteful acquaintances as if she could edit them out of her life. When people kept insisting they’d met, she had no compunction about maintaining they hadn’t.
“He was a law professor at Fordham,” the woman said either to impress her or emphasize the sorrow of his plight.
Alice smiled sympathetically.
“We have three grandchildren,” his wife told her. “They were the loves of his life and some days, he doesn’t even know who they are.”
“Mrs. Vanderveer?” a nurse appeared at the door.
“Come with me, George. I’m seeing the doctor, now,” his wife urged.
“No,” he snapped. “I want to stay with Junie.”
His wife looked helplessly at Alice.
“It’s all right. “ Alice said. “I don’t mind.” She wasn’t completely heartless. Mrs. Vanderveer needed a break, and they were in a medical office, after all. If he got violent or relieved himself on the floor, it would be the staff’s problem.
“You must remind him of someone he cared for very much,” his wife said. “I almost envy you.” She smiled dubiously and went in to her appointment.
“Why are you doing this, Junie?” George demanded. “Why are you being so goddamned mean?”
“My name is Alice Mullen,” she told him calmly.
He grinned as if she was flirting with him. Most of his teeth were missing and his cheeks drooped like the flaps of a hunting cap. “Junie, you’re cute as a button.” She’d kept her teeth, her shape and her sanity. Maybe to him, she was devastatingly sexy. “I asked you to dance, Junie. Remember that? I chose you as my dancing partner.” He hadn’t asked her. He’d roughly grabbed her arm, maybe emboldened by her skinny passivity. There’d been mandatory dances on Friday afternoons in the auditorium to introduce boys and girls to social mixing. “Weren’t those wonderful days, Junie? Magical days.”
“No, they weren’t,” she said coldly, a hostile witness to his reveries. She had no use for nostalgia. If times were so great, she should have been happier.
Aside from the mayhem at home, school had unnerved her from kindergarten on. The playground might have been a prison yard. Kids were pushed off swings by other ones, bullied, encircled, and taunted while teachers made themselves scarce or instructed the victims to “Fight your own battles!” Sensations of falling on pavement or having her head slammed against the bars of a jungle gym still veered up, sometimes. Why was the playground covered in steel and cement—why not the soft earth of a park or backyard? The concrete only confirmed the cruelty school seemed meant to inflict.
She hadn’t stayed in touch with anyone. She’d never gone to a single high school reunion. They seemed like wakes for one’s youth and she hadn’t mourned hers.
“I know why you’re mad at me,” he said. “I called you Junie the Jew.”
Another vulnerability. “You acted like you owned that town,” she felt compelled to tell him.
“Well, in a way, we did. The Vanderveers helped found Pinesbury,” he reminded her. They never let anyone forget it. “Dad always said me and Bruce had a lot to live up to. “
His twin brother, Bruce, had been a casualty of war. Alice had heard only scant details. He’d been a soldier on his way home, killed in a bar fight in Bangkok. After that, she never thought about the Vanderveers again or even heard them mentioned. The catastrophe froze them in time like corpses found in the ruins of Pompeii, encased in molten lava.
“Junie, why were you crying?” he said. “You were crying and I kept asking you why and you wouldn’t tell me. You refused to tell me.”
It had been their Sophomore year. He’d tried to strong-arm her into confiding in him and even his kindness felt like harassment. On that particular morning, she’d had a fight with her mother, Claire. She was pressing a skirt to wear to school and Claire had tried to wrest the iron away to maybe kill her with it. She hadn’t known her mother’s manic rages were a national trend, a symptom of dexedrine prescribed for weight control. The Rolling Stones even wrote a song about it and the phrase ‘bitch on wheels’ entered the vernacular. Alice never confided her mother’s gruesome transformations to anyone. It had almost been like loving a vampire.
“Why were you crying?” he still sounded irked as if sadness was a genetic trait foreign to his emotional range.
“I was clinically depressed,” she said tersely.
In those days, they called it ‘melancholia’ which indicated someone in a comatose swoon. She went to school and functioned, but her life force was gravely compromised. Now, she felt lucky she hadn’t been diagnosed. People had been so ignorant that even when they tried to help you, they turned you into a monster. Her mother had been softly beautiful before getting addicted to amphetamines.
Alice recalled George’s mother as a lovely, homely lady with blonde hair and a wide, craggy smile like a jack o’ lantern’s. Her large, bustling house seemed open at all hours. No secrets, there. Everyone talked about swim parties, beer blasts, cars raucously disassembled on the lawn, then put back together, again. Families like the Vanderveers seemed immune to tragedy and when it happened, the whole town was in shock, realizing there were no formulas that worked, no amount of prayers, good deeds or stellar homemaking could ward off disaster. It was hard to believe people were that willfully naïve.
“You’re jealous, Junie. Admit it,” he gloated. “You thought you’d win for most book reports, but you didn’t come close. I won. Eighty book reports! No one could touch that. No one even tried!”
He was back in fifth grade. Their teacher told the class that whoever read the most books would win an award at the end of the year. It would be a surprise. As usual, George went at it with the aggression of a hockey player.
“What did you win?” Alice asked him.
His menacing confidence made the contest anathema to her even though she loved to read. She didn’t blame him. It was the teacher who’d encouraged the kids to undermine each other. Her name was Mrs. Elliot, an old lady who dyed her hair the color of yellow caution tape and applied rouge in such perfect circles she might have used a compass. What could that clownish woman have offered a ten-year-old boy that he wanted so badly?
“What was it?” Alice asked, truly curious, now. “What did you win, anyway?”
He blankly stared, then his mouth dropped open and his whole face softened with bewilderment.
“I don’t remember,” he whispered.
There was hardly a trace of him left. Soon he wouldn’t know his own name. It was startling how flimsy identity was, how the old were as indistinguishable as rows of newborns before being brought home and told who they were.
He looked so frightened she was tempted to tell him she’d nearly died the year before. In the Shop-Rite, she’d been gripped by violent dizziness and rushed to the hospital. A doctor had asked if ‘sudden death’ ran in her family, suspecting it was an aneurism. Her panicked clarity made her think in one pivotal sentence, “I was sure I’d live longer than this, but I won’t last the week.” Then she felt a transcendent peace as if she’d skipped the trauma of dying and oblivion had begun. She could only compare it to floating on water. Afterwards, she was told her tranquility was a defense mechanism, but that made it no less of a comfort.
“All done, George!” It was Mrs. Vanderveer looking totally refreshed after time away from him. She might have come from a spa.
“Junebug’s coming over later for a dip in the pool,” he announced. Alice hadn’t been called “Junebug” since first grade.
“We don’t even have a pool,” the woman said as if she feared Alice might take him seriously. It was a very humid day, out.
“Oh, fuck off! Junebug’s coming over and we’re going for a swim!”
“Could you humor him?” the woman asked a little desperately.
They’d grown up together, but while his youth gleamed like a summer in heaven, hers had been chaos that had taken the rest of her life to put in place. He would die soon and in a few years if she were still alive, Alice might reproach herself for not having been kinder. She often wanted to talk to people once they died the way she’d been attracted to men who were unavailable.
“I’ll be over later, George,” Alice politely obliged his wife. “I have to eat lunch first.”
He beamed and spontaneously broke into a loud, off-key chorus of Good Vibrations while his wife pushed him through the door.
[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of the story “Iodinical” by KT Browne.]
Image by Karol M
Robin Vigfusson lives in New Jersey and has an M.A. in political science from NYU. Vigfusson’s work has appeared in The Blue Hour Magazine and was podcast on No Extra Words.