Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 21

April 22 Monday home early

Although Frederick Monnish was no slave to symmetry (witness the pattern of arcs and circles within the square courtyard), he seemed to treat each unit as a father might a family of jealous children. If unit one got a fig tree, then it’s opposite, unit 6, must have one as well. Rows of azaleas facing north called for rows of azaleas facing south. The one store row of flats that face west must have their own shrubs, also azaleas. Over the course of the court’s 60 years, some changes crept in. Roses flank the front walk and a hackberry has grown up and over Billie and Allen’s roof. At Phoebe’s kitchen window, a small magnolia gives the room a greenish tinge and more privacy than the rest of us get.

When Phoebe asked me to return her gardening tools and pack her overnight bag for the hospital, I jumped at the chance to visit her apartment. Why? Because other people’s space is evidence of their choices and, as such, their souls. Her living room is an excavation site in the making. A museum of miscellany. A goldmine, but of what and for whom, I could not tell in just one visit.

There’s a faint odor of old lady which made me want to open her living room windows. I did open them with some difficulty and shut them again before leaving.

Her kitchen door was blocked by a trash bin too full for her to lift. I emptied this for her. I made her bed, changing the sheets and rolling the soiled ones into a laundry basket I found, after a bit of search, in the hall closet. When the phone rang, I answered it.

Mrs. Moth wanting to know why Phoebe’s door was open. She seemed charmed by my explanation.

“Go into her bedroom closet and take out the blue housecoat. You should find a pair of matching slippers in there, too.” I brought the telephone with me.

“There are a couple of robes here,” I said.

“Take the clean one.”

“With the tags still on it?”

Of course the one with the tags still on it. She didn’t say this, but I know.

“Cut the tags,” said Mrs. Moth. She didn’t say where the scissors were, but I found them, eventually, in a bedside drawer.

I was ordered to pack underwear, a night gown and to select a day dress that buttoned down the front. (Phoebe and Mrs. Moth are the last old ladies to eschew pull-on pants and jogging outfits.) I was to also gather various sundries and toilet articles and place everything in a small suitcase I would find in the hall closet. Whatever book was on the bedside table should be included as well. Also, a bit of knitting in the living room. I was to bring this over to the hospital as soon as possible. I was to keep Phoebe’s house key and return to water the plants except for the African violets. She wasn’t going to be away that long.

“And don’t tell Veronica you’re doing this,” she said in a brisk tone that had the slightest hint of confidence to it. She didn’t want me to know Veronica wasn’t allowed in, but she had to. “Just keep it to yourself.”

Like the good daughter I am, I promised I would and, further, did not try to ingratiate myself by asking why. That would not have been ingratiating and I figured I could find out why on my own.

Phoebe’s things were easily found. Despite, or in spite of Mrs. M’s orders, I packed two house dresses, both fresh and nearly new. My curiosity about them was satisfied when, after some examination, I found they’d been hand made from an old-fashioned pattern. That’s smart!

Phoebe was a reader. On her night table were several mystery novels, an assortment of current novels by middle aged women writers where the conflicts are familiar and the writing clear. But there was also an old hard backed edition of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I opened it. A first edition!

I packed two mysteries, but left the F. Scott behind. When you’re in the hospital people are constantly interrupting you. Light reading is best.

Her knitting was where Mrs. Moth said it would be. As I rolled the beige ball of a yarn inside a length of knitting, being careful with the needles and the stitches, my eye was caught by a funny little water color painting to the right of her window. I took it down from the wall for a closer look. It was a view of the cemetery, of Evergreen, painted, I guessed, in the 1960s in the very stiff, paint by numbers perfection that epitomizes even the amateur work of that period.

It was much more realistic and studied than my maps and sketches. I recognized from its perspective, the plot where I’d found Phoebe. Her own. There had, evidently, been a crepe myrtle on it once. And there were fewer headstones and no peonies or stone border. As I replaced it, I noticed a date on the back---1959---and an inscription, “I have found my heart in you.” And the name, Beau. I looked around, but did not see any other paintings like it.

I retraced my steps back to the bedroom, adding a cardigan for Phoebe. The art in here was various and all original. A still life in oil of a bowl of peonies, white with faint pink centers in a blue bowl. A photograph of a handsome man. Another of a group of young women, from the same period, possibly the same roll, as she had shown me the day I planted my garden. A wedding portrait, obviously her parents.

Oh yes, the apartment was a biography of artifacts. Who was B.D.? Had the inscription been addressed to Phoebe or someone else? Why wasn’t Veronica welcome? Does Phoebe have any more first editions? What else? What else?

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