The Grooming of Alice

Page 3 of 15


Patrick dealt the cards, but I didn’t pick mine up. I just wanted to drink in Eva Mecuri with my eyes, studying her colors, her curves—the careless way she tossed her head and ran one hand through her jet-black hair.

I was relieved, though, when Lester came back down, even though I hadn’t heard the toilet flush.

“Ready,” he said, and then I noticed he’d changed his tie.

Eva rose from her chair and gave a tinkly little laugh. “Darling, it’s crooked!” she said. “Here, let me fix it.” And she fussed around with his shirt collar. “Now,” she said, “you’re presentable.”

“Bye again,” Lester said.

“It was nice to meet you, Alice. You, too, Peter,” the vision in black said.

“Patrick,” said Patrick.

The door closed behind them, and Patrick and I looked at each other.

“He came all the way back home just to change his tie?” I exclaimed.

“Bet she made him,” said Patrick.

I went to the window to watch Eva get in the car. “Where do you suppose he met her?” I said.

“Shopping at Saks, maybe?” said Patrick. We played a few more games, and then he pulled me up beside him. He put his arm around me and said, “Your dad going to pop out of the closet about now?”

I think we were both remembering how Dad had clicked on the porch light a few weeks before when we were kissing passionately on the swing. I wondered if Les and Eva kissed passionately. I couldn’t imagine her messing up her dress or her hair or makeup. I couldn’t even imagine her without makeup.

But right at that moment Patrick was kissing me, and I realized that there is a lot of difference between kissing outside in the dark and kissing indoors with a light on. I mean, anybody could have seen. We could see, that was the problem. All I had to do was open my eyes to see whether Patrick kissed with his eyes open or closed, so I looked and, oh, m’gosh, Patrick was looking.

I jerked away from him.

“You’re staring at me!” I said.

“You were staring at me!” He laughed. He glanced around the room. “Actually, I can’t help thinking that your dad has the place booby-trapped.”

I grinned. “He’d have surveillance cameras around if he could,” I told him.

Patrick put his arm around me again, but this time he whispered into my hair, “You got any ice cream?”

I was almost glad, because I was uncomfortable kissing with the light on, but if we turned it off, Dad might come home.

“Almond mocha fudge?” I asked.

“That’ll do,” said Patrick.

We went back out in the kitchen, and I found a jar of milk chocolate topping, which Patrick insisted on heating before we poured it over the ice cream.

“Why settle for ordinary if you can have gourmet?” he said.

I was halfway through mine when I remembered that Pamela and Elizabeth and I had sworn off ice cream for the summer. I ate it, anyway, and it was delicious. I was just rinsing the dish afterward when Dad came in. He seemed surprised to find Patrick there and Lester out, but I could tell he was feeling pretty good just by the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled.

“You want an ice-cream sundae, Dad?” I offered. “Patrick made dinner for me, and we’re having dessert.”

He took off his sport coat and draped it over the back of a chair, then opened the refrigerator. “No, I think I’ll just have an apple,” he said, rummaging through the fruit bin. “Maybe a sandwich later. How are things going, Patrick?”

“Pretty good,” Patrick told him. “I have to get up every morning at the crack of dawn, but other than that, I like to work outside.”

“Makes a nice change from school,” said Dad.

He took his apple into the living room, and Patrick said, “Well, I’d better get home. Landscaper wants me there by six thirty tomorrow. We’re loading a truck and doing some planting up near Frederick.”

“Okay,” I told him, and walked him out on the porch, where he kissed me in the dark. Better. Definitely better.

“Yep,” he said, pulling away after a moment. “You really look good, cupcake.” Then he kissed me again, his lips hard against my mouth, his tongue pushing against my teeth. I felt a zing go through me, and wondered what would happen if I ever was in the house alone with Patrick and we knew for sure Dad wouldn’t be there.

At the end of the kiss, Patrick held my face in his hands and said, “Why settle for ordinary when you can have gourmet?”

I smiled at him, and then he was going down the steps to his bike.

After he’d gone, I went back inside to find Dad sitting contentedly on the couch, eating his apple. He looked very pleased with himself. Maybe Miss Summers didn’t leave after all! I thought. Maybe she had started down the ramp to the plane, and suddenly turned around and thrown herself in his arms! Maybe Dad had proposed on the spot and she’d accepted, and the whole terminal had burst into applause.

“Did … did Miss Summers get off okay?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” said Dad. “Plane was right on time.”

I waited, and when he didn’t offer any more, I grinned at him. “It must have been a long good-bye. I thought you’d be back before this.”

“Oh, I stopped at the United counter and bought my ticket for England. I’ll be visiting her, you know, the last two weeks of August.”

So many things were going through my mind at once that it was like opening the dryer door while the clothes inside were still spinning and trying to find your socks. He was really going to do it! Dad and Miss Summers would be alone together for two whole weeks this summer! Then the second thought: Les and I would be here by ourselves for two whole weeks while Dad was away.

“That’s … that’s wonderful, Dad!” I said. I gathered up the cards from the coffee table and started to put them away.

“Les is out?” Dad asked.

“Yeah, he and Eva. He stopped by the house to change his tie. She must not have liked it.”

“What’s she like?”

I thought. “Sort of the Mata Hari type.”

“Mata Hari!” Dad exclaimed. “Where did you pick that up? What do you know about her?”

I hadn’t the slightest idea. I think it was a name I’d heard him use. “You mean she’s a real person?”

“She was a spy back in World War I. She was supposed to have seduced our soldiers and demoralized the troops. No … wait a minute. Maybe that was Tokyo Rose in World War II.”

“Whatever,” I said. As far as I was concerned, either one fit Eva all right. I started for the dining room to put the cards back in the drawer when Dad said, “I thought we had a rule about Patrick, Al.”

I turned. “About Patrick? Just Patrick?”

“About any boy in the house when no one else is home.”

“Dad, all we did was make dinner and play cards and eat some ice cream,” I said. And kiss, I should have added, but didn’t.

“Al,” he said, “I was fourteen once. And I know how exciting and tempting it is to be alone with someone you find attractive. The rule still stands, even though you’re entering high school. Especially now that you’re entering high school. And if you don’t think you can stick to it while I’m away in August, I could ask your aunt Sally to fly out from Chicago and—”

“Never mind,” I said. “I get the point.”



GWEN AND I AGREED TO MEET IN THE lobby of the hospital on Monday at nine in the morning and apply as volunteers. We both arrived early, so we sat on a couch together and tried to figure what color of uniform would look best on us. She’s got brown skin and black hair; I’m a strawberry blonde, and my skin is pale. The only color we could come up with that suited us both was yellow.

It wasn’t until we met our supervisor and she gave us the applications that I realized how small my world really was:

Job experience: Three hours a week for my dad.

Languages spoken: English only.

Hobbies and skills: Junior High Camera Club … Scrubbing the porch?

Education: Eighth grade, beginning ninth.

Why do you want to be a volunteer?

I thought about that last question. To get experience, I wrote. It was the only thing I could think of, and I did need different kinds of experiences. A more honest answer would probably have been, So I can wear a uniform. If I wore a uniform, I’d feel more important. And if I felt important, maybe I was.

Gwen and I looked at each other.

“I don’t guess we look all that great on paper,” she said.

“Everybody has to start somewhere,” I told her.

We turned to the next page of the application and discovered that the uniform consisted of a jacket. No striped pinafores. No pink aprons. No official-looking caps or dresses.

It was when we read the volunteer agreement that we discovered just what would be required of us. We had to agree to keep all information about patients confidential; volunteer at least one four-hour day per week; be punctual; wear our ID badges each time; get a tuberculosis skin test, a chest X ray, and provide our own transportation.

In other words, we didn’t get brownie points for being volunteers. Nobody was coming to pick us up; we had to be punctual, discreet, and work without pay. The giving would be all on our part. Could we do it?

Gwen signed without hesitating a minute. I signed my name. We both had to take the forms home for a parent’s signature. Then we went in to talk with the supervisor.

“There are many things you can do here,” she told us, “but we’ll probably start you out doing a little of everything. You can help deliver mail and flowers to patients’ rooms. You can stock shelves in the gift shop and replace magazines in the waiting rooms. We need volunteers to change beds in physical therapy, to move patients in wheelchairs to cars, and of course there’s a right way to do all of this, and we’ll make sure you know how.”

We watched a short training film with other volunteers and then we had to sign up for certain days of the week. Gwen and I had already talked it over and decided on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from nine to one, because we wanted it to seem like a real job. That gave us afternoons off, of course, to swim or whatever.

I think both Gwen and I were more confused than helpful the first day. Just getting around the hospital was a headache, learning which floors held the cardiac unit, intensive care, maternity, orthopedic, oncology (cancer), psychiatric, pediatric—the list went on and on. Then there were the visitors’ elevators and the emergency elevator, freight elevators … staff rooms, nuclear medicine rooms …

“Maybe this will get us in shape for high school,” Gwen said. “All those corridors, all those rooms …”

We didn’t see much of each other the rest of the day, because we were each assigned to another volunteer who showed us how to put the brakes on a wheelchair before a patient sat down, how to enter a patient’s room without intruding, what we could say to patients and what we couldn’t.

“Why did we ever pick mornings!” Gwen moaned as we fell into a seat on the bus going home and the door closed behind us. “I’m not even awake till ten o’clock.”

“So we’d have our afternoons off,” I reminded her.

“I’d rather sleep,” Gwen said, drawing her feet up on the seat and leaning her head on my shoulder.

On Wednesday, though, when I met Gwen on the bus, we both felt more ready. We were wearing the jackets they’d given us the first day—coral-colored things that looked better on Gwen than on me—with our IDs attached to the pockets, and when we walked through the swinging doors of the hospital, we felt as though we belonged.

My job for the first hour was to greet people at the admitting desk, check their names off on a list of patients to be admitted, jot down their time of arrival, and give them a clipboard with a form to fill out. If they had any questions I couldn’t answer, I referred them to an older volunteer.

When the first four patients had signed in and we were waiting for more, the gray-haired woman behind the desk said to me, “What we have to remember, Alice, is that these aren’t like customers in a restaurant. They’re not here because they want to be, and they know they’re not going to enjoy it. Every one of them has an ache or a pain somewhere. Some are seriously ill, and probably all of them are a little frightened. People who are worried don’t always listen as well or follow instructions. They may be short-tempered, even rude. We have to allow for that.”

I hadn’t really thought of patients that way.

“They say,” the volunteer continued, “that the only really happy ward in a hospital is maternity, where most of the women are there because they want to be. Because pregnancy is a natural, positive process.”

Something else I hadn’t thought of.

Gwen and I met in the cafeteria at one. We decided we could afford to treat ourselves to a burger after a four-hour stint as a volunteer, and it gave us a chance to unwind before we caught the bus home.

“What did they have you doing?” I asked her.

“Stocking shelves in the gift shop,” she said. “I’d rather work with patients. This was too much like working at the mall.”

We both, though, felt wiped out.

“Just tension,” Dad told me that evening. “It’s a new situation, and the people you’re meeting are under stress, too. It’s natural. It’ll take a while.”

He was right, because the third time we went—Friday—I knew just where to sign in, where to report, and I began to feel I was part of the team. Some of the people I’d already met said hello to me, and it felt good going around with my ID tag dangling from my jacket pocket. I’d tried a number of different jobs, but this time I got the one I liked most, taking mail and flowers around to the patients.

“Take a cart,” my supervisor said. “The green plant goes to 207, and the yellow roses go to 5l0. The magazines go to the waiting room at maternity.”

I put the plants and magazines on a cart and got on an elevator. A doctor smiled at me. “You’ve signed up for the summer?” he asked.

I nodded.

“How many days are you volunteering a week?”

“Three. Just the mornings,” I told him.

“We’re glad to have you,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”

It was a new kind of feeling, being needed. I mean, I knew I was needed at home, and I think Elizabeth and Pamela and some of my other friends need me—some of the time, anyway. Patrick acts like he needs me, though I can’t imagine why. But here in the hospital, I knew that if I didn’t volunteer, all my jobs would fall to someone else who already had his hands full. It’s nice to do something different for a change.

I delivered the green plant to room 207—the man was sleeping, so I just put it on his windowsill and went back out. Then I took the elevator to 510. I was getting more familiar with the different floors—where to find the nursing stations, how the rooms were numbered. Fifth floor, I remembered, was the cardiac unit.

In 510, one bed was empty, but there was a woman in the bed near the window. I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or not, but I knocked lightly on the door and went in just as she turned her face toward me. I stopped and stared.

“Why … Alice? Is it you?” the woman said, and I recognized my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Plotkin.

“Mrs. Plotkin!” I said. “I didn’t know you were here!”

“Why, of course you didn’t, my dear. How could you? I didn’t know I was going to be here myself. We were out having dinner with friends the other day, and I had this little heart problem again. Strange, isn’t it, how one body part wears out before another.” She smiled and put out her hand, grasping my arm and pulling me gently toward her. “Let me look at you, dear. My, haven’t you gotten pretty, though! Not that you weren’t before. How are you?”

I put her yellow roses on the windowsill and handed her the card. They were from some friends in Silver Spring. Then I sat down beside her bed. The training

film had taught us that when a patient wants to talk and we can afford the time, we can sit down with them for a few minutes. We’re not to give any medical advice, of course, and we’re to keep the conversation on pleasant subjects, when possible, but most of all, we’re to be good listeners. I didn’t have to be told to be a good listener for my favorite teacher.

She was thinner now than she was three years ago, and her hair was a lot more gray. But she still had that kind smile on her face and in her eyes. I wanted to put my arms around her and hug her, but I didn’t know if volunteers were supposed to do that.

“You’re a volunteer in this hospital now? Isn’t that wonderful!” she said. “How well you look! Tell me about your friends.”

I tried to remember who else was in her sixth-grade class with me. Elizabeth, I think, had Mr. Weber, but Pamela and Patrick were in my class. “Well, I’m friends with Pamela Jones,” I said. I wondered whether I should tell her about Pamela’s mom running off with a boyfriend, and decided against it. That subject was neither happy nor hopeful.

“Pamela Jones,” Mrs. Plotkin mused. “Now, wasn’t she the girl in the play who …?” This time it was Mrs. Plotkin’s turn to stop talking.

I smiled. “Yes, the girl in the starring role. The one whose hair I grabbed onstage.”

We looked at each other and both started to laugh. She just kept looking at me and smiling. “My, how grown-up you seem, Alice. Who else might I remember?”

“Patrick Long?”

“Oh, yes, the red-haired boy.”

“He’s still my boyfriend,” I said.

“Oh, my!” She smiled at me again. “So sophisticated, he was. I always liked Patrick.”

“So did I,” I told her.

A nurse came in just then. “Well, look who’s awake,” she said. “I came in fifteen minutes ago, but you were sleeping so soundly, I decided to leave you be. But the doctor has you down for another test this morning.”

Mrs. Plotkin wrinkled her nose at me. “Why, this is worse than school!” she said.

“I’ll come back on Monday,” I told her, standing up. “I volunteer three times a week.”





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