Mrs. Swan walked swiftly through the living room of her tiny apartment on her way to the bedroom. She had never been a spritely walker, but today her step had a lift, her body an animation that was unusual. She stopped opposite the bathroom and then turned back. There was something not quite right about the living room. She had taken in more with her pale blue eyes than would have been apparent in the swift glance she gave the room as she passed through.
By and large, she was pleased with the way the apartment had turned out. Jason’s Furniture had delivered the sofa, chairs, table, a lamp, and small glass-front chest for bibelots yesterday and she had gotten the delivery men to arrange the pieces to suit her before they left. Ruth had gone with her to pick out the new furniture, and Mrs. Swan was grateful for her friend’s help, but now she was afraid the room didn’t look as much like Ruth’s apartment as she might have wished, even though she had taken extra pains. She had hung her three pictures last night, all prints in store-bought frames, using special tape so as not to mar the newly painted walls.
Despite her anxieties, she stood in the middle of the room and contemplated it with almost embarrassed pleasure. The new sofa was mainly burnt orange and gold flowers which matched the sculptured tweed carpet. She had kept her late husband’s desk and chair from the old house and placed them in a corner of the room. She intended to pay her bills from that desk now that she was alone. There seemed to be enough money to be comfortable. Goodness! Checks came in regularly—pension, social security, dividends from her husband’s investments.
The walnut-stained drum table with the lamp on it drew her attention. Two modified barrel-back chairs in a slippery green fabric hunched around the table. Mrs. Swan thought the chairs were a little short in the seat, but Ruth said they looked right for the small room and perfectly matched the green of the leaves in the sofa. It seemed to Mrs. Swan that Ruth had something besides a lamp on the drum table in her own apartment, but she couldn’t think what.
She cast her eyes around the room for an idea, and they lighted on a wooden stamp box sitting on the desk, a souvenir from Gary, Indiana, purchased twenty years ago on a trip to visit a cousin. Maybe it would do better on the drum table. She now remembered that Ruth had a nice double frame that housed pictures of her grandchildren on her little table. Mrs. Swan thought of a double porcelain picture frame, still in the box it had arrived in. Her daughter-in-law had sent it for her birthday last year with pictures of the two boys, but she’d put it away until the impending move. She couldn’t think where it was, but she didn’t have time to fool with it now, so the wooden box would have to do. Ruth would be here for lunch within an hour, and Mrs. Swan still had her bath to take. A buttery sensation of anticipation filled her heart region as she hurried off.
She stepped into the tub gingerly, guarding her now rather heavy but still strong body. Her failing flesh had a loose firmness like water in a bag. She thought about the lunch she had planned as a special treat and hoped it wouldn’t be too light a meal. She’d wanted something festive enough for the occasion. Ruth was leaving today to go live with her son and his wife in Fort Myers, Florida. Generally, when they lunched together they ate out, either in the hotel dining room on the square, or sometimes Ruth drove them to the new motel restaurant on the highway. Both places served real dinners with vegetables and meat. Ruth said those salad bars were a way restaurants made money; they filled you up for thirty minutes and then you were hungry again.
She had no sooner got out of the tub and put on a summer cotton dress than she heard a brief knock at the door. It was unlike Ruth to be thirty minutes early, and Mrs. Swan felt a flash
of irritation as she wondered who it might be. She came into the living room to see her daughter Barbara who had walked on in. She gave her mother a perfunctory “Hello” before going into the kitchenette and drawing tap water into a glass from the cupboard.
“It’s hot today,” she said, gulping the water. “My car air conditioner isn’t working.”
“I didn’t know you were coming.” Mrs. Swan had followed Barbara and now looked with dismay at the water splashes on the sink and counter top and the dripping glass on the drain board. There! Just when she had gone to the trouble to wipe the stainless steel with a towel, too. “Shouldn’t you be at work?” she asked plaintively.
“I came on the spur of the moment. One of the agency’s clients was supposed to go over some proposals with me today, but he canceled out. I didn’t want to start something new on a Friday, so I’ve taken the afternoon off. I thought I’d see Margie Taylor. I meant to mail her a baby gift but didn’t get around to it, so I brought it with me.”
“Are you going there for lunch?”
“No, I called her before I left town and said I’d come over around 1:00. I’ll have plenty of time to get a bite here. Do you have anything for a sandwich?” She looked around at the cupboards as if she expected a menu to be posted.
Mrs. Swan was disconcerted by the request. “I guess so. I’ll get you something.” She moved ahead of her daughter to the refrigerator. “Go sit down.” She didn’t like people messing about in her kitchen, whether it was her old former kitchen with the thirty-year-old appliances (still spotless she was proud to admit) or her new, miniaturized apartment kitchen, which she’d had to work on one whole day to get rid of others' filth.
Barbara sat down at the small dining table with the faux-wood plastic top and set her handbag on it, something her mother considered unsanitary. The older woman’s movements as she fixed the tuna fish sandwich were as slow and angular as a fork lift. Mrs. Swan glanced again at Barbara’s handbag, having once expressed admiration for it. Barbara had told her it was a fancy foreign brand that had cost several hundred dollars. How shocking to think she had actually paid that much!
“Do you want some instant coffee?” Mrs. Swan asked, cutting the sandwich in two.
“Coffee! You know I never drink coffee. Could I have some iced tea, please? I’ll make it with a tea bag if you don’t have any on hand.”
“I guess it’s your brother who likes coffee. No, I’ll make it.” Mrs. Swan put on the kettle and looked nervously at the brass clock on the wall behind Barbara. It was almost noon.
“Have you seen Joe or Sally recently?” Barbara asked.
“No, not for a while. They never come unless it’s a special occasion.” Her voice had taken on a familiar lugubrious tone. “I guess Sally’d rather spend weekends with her folks.”
“That’s normal. They live in the same town. It’s nearly a hundred miles to come here. I suppose the boys have activities too, and it’s hard for them to get away often. You ought to take the bus over for a weekend sometime.”
“I suppose so,” Mrs. Swan said with doubt in her voice. They had asked her more than once to pay them a visit, but she didn’t know. She couldn’t help but think it had been several months since Barbara had been here and she only lived thirty miles away in the big city. Still, she wouldn’t have said anything about that to her daughter. Mrs. Swan put ice cubes in the tall glass, added hot water and the tea bag. “Can I get you anything else? Chips?”
Barbara shook her head. Mrs. Swan thought her daughter was looking tired. Since the divorce Barbara had worked like a slave, but that was her concern if she wanted to wear herself out and look old before her time and probably never get another man. She’d fervently taken her daughter’s part during the marital crisis, called James a “bum” to everyone and hoped she’d never have to set eyes on him. The shame of it all! The first divorce in the family except for years ago when her great aunt divorced that drunken husband. Joe had hinted that his sister may have caused some of the problems herself, and Mrs. Swan had been fit to be tied. She hadn’t called to talk to Joe for several months. What if he let something like that slip out to others?
The knock on the door startled Mrs. Swan for a moment, and she felt a flutter of anxiety as she thought how badly this day was turning out. When she admitted her friend, she said, “Barbara’s here,” indicating her daughter with a nod.
The women exchanged greetings, and Barbara asked about her move. Ruth patted her tightly crimped, iron-gray hair self-consciously. Mrs. Swan’s hair looked much the same, but then they used the same hairdresser.
“Well, yes, I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. My son and daughter-in-law have been after me ever since they moved to Fort Myers to come live with them.” She bustled over to a chair at the table and eased herself carefully into it. Her arthritis had made her a martyr to getting up and down as she frequently claimed with a little deprecating laugh.
“You sure are lucky,” said Mrs. Swan with a little quaver to her voice.
Her friend turned to Barbara and with enthusiasm asked about the younger woman’s two teenagers, her job, her activities, making interested comments about each. Mrs. Swan listened to the almost drugging quality of her friend’s animated speech. Ruth always knew the right things to say, it seemed like.
“Do you want a doughnut?” she broke in to ask her daughter, removing her plate and glass and carrying them to the sink.
Barbara refused, excusing herself to go to the bathroom.
Mrs. Swan hurried to the refrigerator to get out her and Ruth’s lunch. She didn’t like to wait too long to eat since she had a nervous stomach which demanded regular meals and punished her terribly is she didn’t keep on top of mealtimes. She set the two plates covered in Saran wrap on basket-weave place mats.
“Oh, the ham-wrapped asparagus!” Ruth exclaimed. They had both commented on this dish when they had been served it at Dorothy Gregory’s last week. Dorothy had entertained a group of Methodist church ladies in Ruth’s honor and included Mrs. Swan though she didn’t attend that church.
“I melted Velveeta for the topping,” said Mrs. Swan, hurrying to get a small pan off the stove, pouring the cheese into a tiny pitcher. Then she took out plates of sliced tomatoes on lettuce with French dressing and a basket of Pepperidge Farm rolls covered with a paper napkin. She poured from a large pitcher the fruit tea she had made ahead of time into her best glasses.
“Well, Jane, isn’t this nice,” her friend said with a smile and waited until Mrs. Swan sat down. They had just begun to eat when Barbara came back and saw them at the table.
“Oh, I assumed you were going out to eat.” Her eyes scanned the plates, the pitcher, the basket. “I guess I’ll be going. I’m a little early, but Marge won’t mind.”
Hurriedly swallowing a mouthful of ham and asparagus, Mrs. Swan called out as her daughter exited the room, “Well, come back . . . when you can.”
“You’re lucky to live in the same state as your children,” Ruth said, buttering the roll daintily. “Here I am setting off on a new adventure at my age, just because my kids don’t want me here by myself.”
“I don’t know how you’re doing it, Ruth. I’d never be able to manage such a change, I declare. The move to this apartment has liked to kill me.”
Ruth laughed, showing large teeth. “I just can’t let myself think about what’s behind. Always look forward, Jane. That’s the secret.”
“You’re strong. You’ve had good nerves.” Mrs. Swan had had periodic bouts with nerves all her adult life.
“Yes, I suppose I’ve been fortunate in that way.”
Mrs. Swan took their empty plates and retrieved from the refrigerator the fixings for strawberry shortcake. Arranging them on two plates, she spooned added a dollop of Cool Whip on each and set them on the table. “I hope you get along all right with your daughter-in-law,” she said gloomily.
“I should, I think. Of course, they’ve fixed me up a regular apartment with my own entrance and everything.” The two ate their desserts quietly for a few minutes; then Ruth glanced at her wrist watch and stirred in her chair. “I must go. My bus leaves at 3:10 and I’ll need to pack my personal things.” She thanked Mrs. Swan profusely for the lunch and gave her a peck on the cheek.
As she closed the door behind her friend, Mrs. Swan was overcome suddenly by a fierce anger. She turned to face her apartment, so newly decorated, yet so, so—heartless. She took a pillow from the sofa and threw it into a corner of the room. A lamp against the wall would have been better, but lamps cost money. Tears sprang to her eyes and a harsh, dry sob caught in her throat as she sank into the chair beside the desk, fearful and alone. With an effort she pulled herself together and lifted the telephone receiver. But how dumb of her; she didn’t know Margie Taylor’s number. She pored over the list of Taylors in the directory. What was her husband’s name? George, wasn’t it? She dialed the number with a shaky hand.
“This is Mrs. Swan, Margie. Is—is Barbara still there? I mean, no, I don’t need to talk to her. I just wondered—how’s that new baby?”