July 12, 2012
Every day at 4:30 p.m., Mirabel descends from her upstairs apartment to play the grand piano that sits just off the dining room at The Place. She plays until 5:00 p.m. Alice hates every minute of it.
“She just bangs around,” Alice complained when I asked her what the problem was with Mirabel’s playing. “She gets stuck and then can’t seem to get out of it. It’s hard to explain what happens exactly, but it’s not pleasant.”
I asked what kinds of things Mirabel likes to play.
“The other day she played something,” Alice said, “I couldn’t make it out, but later when she was on her way to her table I told her I liked it. I was trying to be nice. Then she wanted to know my favorite songs and what I’d like to hear and so on.”
Lying to be nice is one of the curses of Alice’s generation of women.
And yet, I remember the day she stood in our kitchen in Anoka, Minnesota, trying to help me sort out what to do about the fibs regularly told by my friend, Kay. Kay and I were both nine years old. Kay lied about almost everything, but not quite everything. She told just enough true things to trick me into believing false things many times.
I was stumped about how to deal with Kay. Because she was my close friend, I felt the weight of her leading me and others astray as if it were on my own shoulders.
This happened to be the year of my introduction to truth-telling, propaganda, and outright lying. Earlier that spring, I’d come home from school and told the story I’d learned about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree and confessing.
My father informed me that this story was a lie – a jaw-dropping moment in my education.
After that, he quizzed me regularly in order to weed out other nonsense teachers might be telling me while attempting to make a pretty picture out of a history that, in many ways, he did not consider pretty.
But that was school. It wasn’t the same as having my friend next door tell me that her talking doll, Susie (who could say only three or four things, such as “Dress me up” or “I like Popsicles”) and who was identical to my talking doll, Vickie, would occasionally hold long conversations with Kay when nobody else was around. Or that she hadn’t borrowed my bike when I’d seen her scurry across the lawn with it.
Alice listened to my complaints about Kay, wagged her finger at me, and quoted Sir Walter Scott: “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.”
Plenty of spiders lived down in the basement where I had set up a lending library for my neighborhood friends. I even kept a spider and a few twigs in a large jar on the desk that I used as acting librarian. I knew all about webs and understood the rhyme perfectly.
My receipt of Scott’s wisdom that day is such a clear and significant moment in my personal history that I can see the gleam of the toaster on the kitchen counter, the time on the clock that hung on the wall above my sister’s high chair (9 a.m.), the jet shine of my mother’s hair falling in soft waves down around her face.
I didn’t need to worry about Kay’s lies any more. Sooner or later her web would tangle.
Now here’s this very same mother telling a terrible piano player that her music is enjoyable.
Since she has lived here in Oregon, I’ve observed Alice’s desire to please others many times. But she not only uses fibbing to make people happy, she uses it to win. Also, maybe it gives her something to do while, spider-like, she’s just hanging around.
For example, a few days ago I took her to the eye doctor. My back is very cranky at the moment, due to the odd way I have to sit when steering my new (old) boat, Skiffy. (Here I am at my friend Julia’s houseboat after our maiden voyage).
A bad back made it a challenge to heave Alice’s walker into and out of the car, but these eye appointments are hard to get, so off we went in the cool of the morning, with Alice wearing a knit shirt over which she buttoned up her heavy black sweater, much like this one:
After the lengthy appointment, she wanted me to drop off her hearing aids to be cleaned. The repair place wasn’t far from the doctor’s office, and so I drove there, walked my unhappy back up to the second floor, and dropped off the hearing aids.
When I got back to the car it was a few minutes after noon, sun at full blast. “A tuna fish sandwich sounds good,” Alice said.
I mentally ran through the list of nearby restaurants and knew they’d all be packed, but a grocery store/deli was less than ten minutes away.
I parked in the shade, rolled all the windows down, and cranked myself out of the car to go inside and order sandwiches.
(That martyred whine you hear between the lines is fully intentional.)
I returned fifteen minutes later with two tuna sandwiches on rye, two bottles of ginger ale, and some bananas and rice cakes for Alice so she’d have something in her apartment to snack on.
As soon as I opened the car door, she asked, “Where have you been? You left me in this hot car for forty-five minutes.”
“Fifteen,” I said.
She tapped her watch. “It was 11:45 when we got here and now it’s 12:30.”
“I checked my watch too. It was 11:45 when we left your doctor’s office. It was 12:15 when we arrived here at the deli.” I spoke clearly and honestly and firmly. I’d been an unwary visitor to this sort of Alice web too many times in the past.
She pressed on, half smiling, enjoying herself. “You wouldn’t leave your dog in a hot car like this for forty-five minutes.”
I noticed she still wore her heavy sweater. “Are you hot?” I asked.
I wanted to poke her on her woolly shoulder but grabbed the steering wheel instead.
She laughed because she’d been caught. “Home, James,” she said.
Later during our evening call, she told me that she’d entered the dining room for dinner just in time for Mirabel’s regular half hour of bad piano playing. After the concert, Mirabel approached her and asked, “How did you like it?”
“Oh, you play so well,” Alice answered.
“No, your song. How did you like your song that you told me was a favorite? The one I played when I saw you come in?”
Alice tried hard to remember what she’d said in their earlier conversation. Her favorite song. What was it? Surely it couldn’t be anything she’d heard lurching and groaning from the baby grand that night.
“Luckily,” Alice said to me, “Mirabel mentioned the name of the song before I had to come out with the fact that I didn’t know what she was talking about.” She sounded thrilled with her narrow escape.
If I’d been in the room with her, I might have wagged a finger and recited part of a certain poem, but of course she would have wiggled away from the wag and the web and all.
Here’s the song Alice called her favorite:
And here’s a much livelier version from Sam Cooke: