October 27, 2006
We Gather Together
This story has appeared in East Side Monthly, May 2005: 42-43, reprinted in American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Philosophy and Medicine, Fall 2005 and in F. N. Ackerman, Bioethics Through Fiction (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming.)
Glenda's mother, who had gotten bored with retirement and gone back to teaching social studies, was talking about a student who felt guilty over being sorry for herself when so many people were so much worse off. "I asked her why she felt guilty. Precisely how would it help those people if she stopped being sorry for herself?" She leaned forward, taking a mint from the white dish on the coffee table.
"Tell her to charge herself five dollars an hour." Brian swung his feet up on the maroon leather ottoman he and Glenda had given themselves for their ninth anniversary. "For every hour she spends on self-pity, she should donate five dollars to charity. Don't most of those prep school kids have plenty of money?"
"Oh, she would still consider it a virtue to get over her self-pity," Glenda's mother said. "I don't know why it is so hard to make students these days realize that they get no moral brownie points for something that doesn't help others."
Glenda stood up. "I'll be back in a few minutes." She walked out onto the landing and down the stairs. Then she knocked on the door of the only other apartment in the converted old house and waited.
Five minutes later, she was still waiting. How long would a crippled old woman take to get to the door? Glenda knocked again, heard an uneven tread, then a "Yes?"
"It's Glenda Fletcher from upstairs."
Miss Pratt opened her door but kept the chain on, making Glenda feel vaguely dangerous. "I would like to invite you to have Thanksgiving dinner with us tomorrow," Glenda said. "My mother's here, too. She's visiting," she added after a moment.
Miss Pratt was silent so long that Glenda began to wonder whether to expect a reply at all. What did she know about Miss Pratt, anyway, except that she looked about eighty, used a four-pronged cane, and never seemed to go anywhere but to the porch for her mail? And Glenda, who often spent much of the day in her sunroom that overlooked the street--reading novels, daydreaming, and tending her many potted plants--had never seen anyone come to Miss Pratt's but the grocery delivery service. "Invite a lonely elderly neighbor to your holiday dinner"--it sounded like something from the local paper's Community Matters column. The columnist also wanted you to notify the Department of Elderly Affairs if your elderly neighbors showed deterioration in their personal habits. Surely, uncombed hair and a nightgown and egg-stained bathrobe in the afternoon would qualify, but Glenda was hardly about to turn Miss Pratt in for failing to be all dressed up when she had nowhere to go. Miss Pratt was leaning heavily on her cane now, and just as Glenda was coming to think it might be time to end this encounter, the old woman spoke.
"I already have plans. I will be spending Thanksgiving here with friends," she said, looking away, her voice fading like an afterimage.
* * *
"Feast your eyes upon fair and warmer with winds light and variable," Glenda's mother said the next morning. "If I were a meteorologist, I would be ashamed to show my face today."
"Aren't you glad social-studies teachers can make mistakes without the whole city's finding out?" Glenda was mixing miniature marshmallows into a sweet-potato casserole. She gazed through the kitchen window, seeing trees swaying, twigs breaking off, rain falling like nails. Thrills from a safe distance. "I love to watch storms from indoors."
"You always did," said her mother, chopping pecans for her special stuffing. "You always loved pecans, too," she added, handing Glenda several.
"There's a weather advisory. Maybe Miss Pratt's friends won't be coming. Maybe I should try her again." Glenda ate the pecans, then helped herself to three miniature marshmallows.
"Maybe Miss Pratt's friends exist only as a dodge for her to avoid your invitation. You said you never see her go anywhere or get visitors." Glenda's mother retrieved a pecan that had fallen into her lap; she was wearing Glenda's red apron with "THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON DRUGS" printed beneath a picture of a brain atop a plate of pills.
"She gets mail. Although I guess it's mainly catalogs." Glenda had a sudden, unbearable image of Miss Pratt in a dingy, imperfectly buttoned housedress, snatching catalogs from her mailbox, as if looking through them would be the highlight of her day. "I'm going to--"
"Can't you take no for an answer?"
"I'm just following the wise counsel of someone who told me that the only way to get moral brownie points is to help others."
Glenda's mother covered the dish of stuffing, put it in the refrigerator, and walked over to the sink. "But who could want what is obviously a charity invitation?" she asked over the running water.
Lots of people, Glenda thought. "Believe me, when I was in high school, I would have grabbed a charity invitation. To anything. If you're lonely enough, you don't look into people's motives. Besides, you get pretty good at self-deception, you know." But maybe her mother didn't know, any more than she knew what it was like to be lonely in general, rather than to long for a particular person. Married to her high school sweetheart, widowed at forty, she had never met a man wonderful enough to replace him, although, during Glenda's own high school years, the telephone had rung far more often for her mother than for her.
Now her mother was preparing cranberry relish and suggesting that if Glenda tried approaching Miss Pratt sometime when charity was not officially being practiced, it would be far less patronizing, not to mention more convincing. "Not to mention more time-consuming. She is right downstairs, after all. Who knows how much attention she might turn out to want? Would you be prepared to offer charity friendship several times a week?"
"Well," Glenda said, "it's not as if I had a shortage of free time."
"But you always say--"
"I know." What Glenda always said was that free time was the second-best thing in the world, ranking right after love. She also liked to say she had the least respectable occupation for a professor's wife nowadays: none. Glenda's mother was not retired; Glenda was. Glenda had retired at twenty-six, upon realizing she loved her dissertation director rather than her dissertation topic, marrying him, and dropping out of graduate school. She had never had a job. She was not writing a novel, painting, or sculpting. Nor could she qualify as a traditional homemaker; she had, by choice, no children. She did no volunteer work. She just did whatever she wanted. Each day was an adventure, and there was no need to fill it with things that sounded adventurous to other people. Glenda read novels (lately, Agatha Christie and Sinclair Lewis), watched television (she was looking forward to next week's Alfred Hitchcock marathon), took care of her plants, went to museums, libraries, and malls, met friends for lunch, studied whatever interested her as long as it interested her, and cooked elaborate dinners for herself and Brian. Glenda also defended her way of life when it came under attack, which was often. "What do you do?" people would ask. Then there was the university's eminent sociologist who had recently published an essay criticizing idleness, not so much in people like Glenda, but in offspring of the very rich. His reasoning applied to Glenda, though. He thought everyone needed the experience of holding down a job in order to understand how most of the world lived. Most people got colds, Glenda pointed out to anyone who brought up the essay, and most married couples had fights. Most people in the world, if it came to that, were desperately poor. If you had the great good fortune to be free of those things, were you supposed to catch a cold, pick a fight with your spouse, or impoverish yourself? But the sociologist, like Glenda's mother, also thought everyone should do something to help others. Maybe it was time for Glenda to start. "I've decided to follow your wise counsel," she said. "I'll invite her to lunch next week and take it from there."
"I'm impressed," said her mother, "and I hope you will be rewarded by having her turn out to be such fascinating company that charity is beside the point."
"That's a lot easier to imagine if you've never actually met her," Glenda said.
* * *
The day after her mother drove back to Connecticut, Glenda left the apartment early and went to the Korean ceramics exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. She spent the following day watching the Hitchcock marathon. On the third day, she decided to stop procrastinating. She began lurking around the mailboxes, but it was two more days before she saw Miss Pratt.
"Hello," Glenda said, watching Miss Pratt's hand curl around a cluster of catalogs. "How was your Thanksgiving?"
"Fine, thank you, and yours." Miss Pratt recited the last two words without the customary intonation, making them sound like a statement instead of a question. She was wearing a housedress, not a nightgown, but it was dirty and missing a button, and her cardigan had holes in both sleeves.
"It was very nice." Glenda hesitated. "Were your friends able to get here?"
"Pardon?" Miss Pratt's voice had sharpened, making Glenda feel like a snoop.
"I mean," she said, "with the storm. . ."
"They came," said Miss Pratt. "They always come. They come every day."
Glenda took a step backward.
"They come every day," Miss Pratt repeated softly. A shaft of sunlight struck her, illuminating her sparse hair like a feathery halo, and what amazing teeth she has, Glenda thought, how strong and white, expensive dentures, maybe, maybe that's why she can't afford proper clothes, and of course I'm not going to call the Ministry of Elderly Adjustment so they can come and get her medicated out of these delightful delusions that have her suddenly looking so elated, why shouldn't she have imaginary friends if she hasn't got real ones, and--
"To them I am not old and crippled," Miss Pratt was saying.
"They come to me in a better world, where there is neither young nor old, healthy nor crippled." Miss Pratt smiled beatifically. "On the Internet," she said, and turned and hobbled back into her apartment, closing the door behind her.
Read Felicia Nimue Ackerman's poems Nettie Denison Speaks with Her Doctor, Rose and Blue, This is for My Grandmother, and Henrietta Pratt, 80, Has a Surprise for You. Her poetry has appeared in English Studies Forum and The American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Philosophy and Medicine. She is a professor of philosophy at Brown University.
Posted on October 27, 2006