All the Lonely People
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
– T.S. Eliot
Miss Wood, the school librarian, liked to read old-fashioned novels and seldom finished one without a tear in her eye. Romance, she knew, would never come her way. She had sharp features and an angular, uninviting body, and she was getting old. I am not pretty, she would tell herself, but I am well read. This is what she imagined she might tell some man some day, jokingly of course, for that was her way: ironic, self-deprecating. She had gotten into the habit of engaging in long, imaginary conversations in which she was forever explaining herself. I am like this and I am like that, she would say, because of one thing or another. The listener would nod, sometimes sympathetically, sometimes appreciatively, and say, Yes, I see. Miss Wood understood that in all this there was a touch of madness that might get out of hand one day, so she curbed herself when she found herself getting too enthusiastic and went back to reading the novel on her lap.
Miss Wood rented an apartment in a quiet building where everyone lived his own life and showed little inclination to pass the time of day. It was so hard to make friends now. The elderly woman across the hall, a woman such as she herself might become one day, never said more than hello. Others said nothing at all. It was as if you didn't exist or were a stranger there. Only the couple upstairs who had recently moved in with their baby daughter, Val and Trish as they called themselves, were the least bit friendly. Miss Wood had spoken to them a number of times and had even held the adorable child in her arms for a moment and was pleasantly surprised by their willingness to share her and the interest they took in everything around them, including Miss Wood herself.
Miss Wood presided over a large, well-lighted room in the local elementary school. The children sat at big tables and she at a crowded desk almost in the very center with thousands of books neatly arranged on the shelves that lined the walls. This was her domain. Occasionally she read to the younger children but most often she let them all pick out books from the shelves and sit quietly in their seats and read the entire hour while she herself chose a book not so different from the kind the older children read and sat just as quietly in her seat. From time to time she gave them a short lesson in librarianship or entertained a class by reciting the alphabet backwards as fast as anyone could recite it forwards, a kind of parlor trick that impressed the children deeply. She enjoyed her library work. It was the only work she had every done and she had been at the school for nearly fifteen years, ever since getting her degree. It was a pleasant environment, everything was neat and clean, and she could pretty much make her own rules. Her colleagues too were pleasant enough and in the early years she had even had a few friends from among them, a certain Beatrice, for example, a woman as plain as herself who had set her sights on Mr. Franks, the bashful science teacher, informing Miss Wood that she would marry him, for it was really her last chance, and his too, she was convinced, and she had. Miss Wood had envied her for a while and wished that she too could set her sights on someone less than perfect and win him the way Beatrice had, but she did not have that kind of drive or strength of purpose and there had really been no one like Mr. Franks again though once one of their vice principals, a married man, had seemed to be flirting with her, and once she had gone out to dinner with a book salesman but when he touched her her hair had stood on end.
Miss Wood lived in three small rooms and had her own books, all her library favorites and some modern works in paperback editions, neatly arranged in a bookcase that took up half a wall. Sometimes she counted the books and sometimes she rearranged them. Trish had been impressed when she had come downstairs with the baby to visit and Miss Wood had even offered to lend her a few but Trish had begged off, not being much of a reader, as she put it, nor was Val for that matter, though they hoped that Melanie, the baby, and any other children they might have would be more scholastically inclined and perhaps it would be they who borrowed her books one day.
"Well, I certainly hope so," Miss Wood said, and even addressed a few words to the infant in that vein, painting rosy pictures of the intellectual life.
Trish laughed and they all got along very well and Miss Wood would come upstairs to visit them from time to time as well and buy little gifts for Melanie which delighted her, and of course some children's books, so that by the time she was two she was calling Miss Wood Auntie Caroline, or something that resembled it, and Miss Wood felt like part of the family. "What a joy she is," she was always telling Trish, and Trish, who was an easygoing type who let Melanie do as she pleased without bothering much about discipline or direction, just nodded absentmindedly as if she took having this wonderful child for granted. Melanie wore overalls and liked to crawl at breakneck speed though she could walk quite well and they made a game of it, Melanie crawling and Miss Wood catching her by the seat of the pants and pulling her back across the floor where she tried to escape again and Miss Wood told Trish she wanted to teach Melanie to read and Trish talked it over with Val and apparently they consulted all kinds of people and decided against it, not wanting Melanie to get too precocious and become bored with school and begin having all kinds of problems and not fit in. This was a great setback for Miss Wood, who had not imagined they would object and had been looking forward to the experience as she had looked forward to few things in her life and she had tried to reason with them but in vain and had been sensible enough to back off, not wishing to antagonize the parents and put her friendship with the child at risk. By the time Melanie was three Miss Wood was babysitting for her regularly, sometimes for entire evenings when Val and Trish went out, sometimes at odd hours when Trish had to be somewhere for just an hour or two, and of course Miss Wood read to her and told her many things and it was clear to her that the child was precocious, whether she read or not, and wise beyond her years, and she would dutifully repeat every word she spoke to her parents and take special pride in her as though she were the parent herself. It was so adorable how little Melanie talked, sometimes impatiently, saying, "Oh, Caroline, stop," or "I need my privacy" when she closed the door to the bathroom, no doubt repeating what she'd heard Trish say, or how she'd look at her parents when they were dressed up to go out, not at all intimidated or overwhelmed by their glamorous larger-than-life appearance, Trish all painted and glittering and saturated with perfume that made you drunk, but rather observing them with her head cocked to the side like a wizened old man and what looked to Miss Wood like an ironic twinkle in her eye that combined, incredibly, fondness with a hint of disapproval. Val, on the other hand, looked at his wife hungrily. It was clearly these nights on the town that gave the marriage its edge, for otherwise Trish was quite ordinary looking. Miss Wood could feel the electricity in the air on these occasions and was swept up in it herself and had many confused feelings and wanted for a moment to be lost in them thinking of Trish's soft body and painted face and perfume and Val's male look. But after they came back exhausted from dancing and maybe a little drunk and she was alone again it was the child she thought about as she idly turned the pages of a book and had her cocoa before going to bed, and her breast swelled, for she loved her, this was love beyond all measure, the senses luxuriating in it, the flesh melting. She loved the child and thought about her constantly and when she was with her her eyes often filled with tears of joy.
Miss Wood saw Trish and Melanie nearly every day and if Trish exploited Miss Wood occasionally she did not mind that at all, for the reward was spending time with Melanie, and she was convinced that Trish liked and even admired her, for they had many chats and Trish confided many things to her about her personal life as though Miss Wood were experienced in matters that touched the heart and flesh and Miss Wood nodded and occasionally interjected a word of wonder or sympathy in order to hold up her end of the conversation. Trish was not too bright, nor was her husband really despite his occasional blustering, not that it made a difference, for Miss Wood was not a snob and recognized Trish's virtues, though it seemed a miracle that they could have produced such an extraordinary child, even if she had to admit that Melanie owed much of her engaging personality to her mother.
When Melanie started school Miss Wood had her once a week in the library. Miss Wood was very careful not to show that there was a special relationship between them, but it was really Melanie who established the bounds, sensing how irregular such a relationship would appear in the context of the classroom and therefore switching something off inside her and acting indifferently toward her as though she was just another teacher and even seeming to resent the claim Miss Wood had on her, which threatened to set her apart. This hurt Miss Wood, though she recognized the justice of it and the wisdom of the child, so Miss Wood switched off something inside her too and they got through the weekly hour in the library smoothly enough, like perfect strangers, and when they were back home everything went back to normal though it took Melanie a moment or two to thaw out on library days. Now that she could read Miss Wood found it difficult to decide whether she was still just a child seemingly put on earth to entertain her elders or a young person who had to be taken more seriously and had a life of her own, a status or social position among her friends and acquaintances involving intrigues, jealousies, resentments and even romantic feelings which had nothing to do with Miss Wood or her parents at all. She saw her sometimes walking to school and sometimes she was indeed the young lady but sometimes also the child.
Miss Wood led a well-ordered life and as the years passed became more and more set in her ways, reducing her days to a sequence of simple, well-defined acts that occupied the hours and was always capped with a cup of cocoa before she went to bed. She was past forty now. I am becoming an old maid, she said, but when she stared at herself boldly in the mirror, a thing she had always been reluctant to do, preferring a kind of blissful ignorance about the way she looked, she found that she was not so old after all, and despite the lines slowly creeping into her face and the look of severity when she pursed her lips, there was a certain softness too and a rounding of her body, a ripeness really that came before the final decay. Hadn't women married at her age?
But Miss Wood found it difficult to think about marriage in any concrete way. She preferred to imagine a kind of perpetual courtship which reached its climax when a young or not so young man who sometimes resembled Mr. Franks and sometimes resembled Robert Redford proposed to her and took her in his arms. Miss Wood did little to encourage the fulfillment of such dreams though Trish was always offering to take her in hand and make her over with a new hairdo and some powder and paint and shorter skirts "for after hours" as she put it but Miss Wood wasn't about to walk around looking like a tart or a suburban divorcee and preferred the staid, efficient look she achieved with a few very nice suits and grayish dresses. Trish had another child now, a brother for Melanie, but Miss Wood took little interest in him and Melanie picked up on this and treated him with great disdain, making it clear that she couldn't be bothered with his trivial concerns. When she sat on the floor with Miss Wood coloring or doing her homework they'd find meaningless tasks for him to perform to get him out of their hair and have a little laugh about it as though they'd put something over on a formidable adversary and sometimes Miss Wood would color too and be pleased with the result, not having artistic talent of her own.
In the third grade Melanie was the star of the school show and got A's in everything on her report card and wasn't thought of as stuck up but was very popular and her forceful personality made it easy for her to impose her will on her friends. She always knew just how a thing should be done and got upset if you didn't agree with her and sometimes sulked and walked away until the other children came running after her and in the end let her have her way. She will go very far, Miss Wood thought, and observed her very closely as a kind of specimen of the superior type, one blessed almost magically with extraordinary attributes like a tree that stands higher than all the rest, and she could see a time when she too would be following Melanie's lead and leaning on her for support and even living vicariously through her as to a certain extent she already was.
Until Melanie had come along Miss Wood had never taken cognizance of the children in her library class as individuals but rather saw them as an undifferentiated mass always acting in unison: all to sit, all to stand, all to go to the shelves, all to select a book. She knew none of them by name as she didn't give marks. They came and went and she didn't even know what grades they were in. But now she looked at the faces occasionally and wondered if there were other Melanies there, and she was sure there were, and she would have liked to have a special class of Melanies and guide them toward some distant goal. She regretted not having acquired the requisite skills to conduct such a class but pretended she could and imagined the lessons she might give, sharing what wisdom and knowledge she had and being surrounded by such girls or women in her old age whose gratitude would be everlasting. As it was, only her own little Melanie fit the bill and Miss Wood was determined to cultivate her talents and bring her along until she could take wing and soar on her own.
When Melanie was ten Val and Trish moved away. This was a terrible blow but Miss Wood took stock and realized it was not so terrible after all, for they would be living just a few bus stops away, walking distance almost, and Melanie was mobile and independent and no longer needed to be looked after so that the move really offered the opportunity to place their relationship on a more mature footing and could therefore be seen as a blessing in disguise, giving each some breathing space and making their encounters all the more meaningful, occasions planned for specific purposes and having a special flavor, like visits to the museum or concert hall or a luncheon date on a fall afternoon as though Melanie were already a young woman. They would always have a lot to tell each other, so much to catch up on, for they continued to maintain their distance in school, which was only proper, though sometimes Miss Wood passed Melanie a note, becoming Caroline for just that one moment. Trish still came over and they had enjoyable talks, like sisters really, there was no distance between them, and Miss Wood was grateful for the friendship, the only one she had aside from the one with Melanie, which ran along a separate track, excluding Trish, as though the mother and the daughter inhabited separate worlds, engaging Miss Wood at different levels of her consciousness. Val was a salesman and frequently out of town. The marriage had held up nicely, Miss Wood thought. They were just ordinary people, as Miss Wood was, when all was said and done. Only Melanie was different.
Miss Wood wondered what it would have been like to live these years with a man like Val, or perhaps not Val for he was clearly not her type, a man then like Mr. Franks, and to have had children of her own and domestic concerns and milk spilling out of her breasts and the warmth of a husband in bed. Sometimes she regretted not having these things. This is my lot, she thought. It is not to be. But she had Melanie and that was enough. She especially liked the way Melanie dressed, with such flair, such as Miss Wood had never dared to have, bright red and yellow slickers and colorful checkered scarves and stylish headbands and miniskirts and woolen caps, and wondered who it was who picked out her clothes, whether it was Trish or Melanie herself or both of them putting their heads together and solemnly discussing the latest fashions, for Trish was a dresser too. Melanie had long hair, fussing over it and wearing it in various ways. She must have had admirers among the boys. Miss Wood would have liked to meet them and size them up. And though she was the most popular girl in school she continued to get straight A's and liked to draw and even wrote a little and Miss Wood thought it would be a good time to begin piano lessons but Val and Trish talked that over too and decided against it because they figured they'd have to buy a piano if they were going to be serious about it and they really didn't have the room, not to mention the money that all this was going to cost, and Miss Wood was tempted to offer to finance the entire venture but realized that this might be construed as overstepping a certain bound and reined her natural instincts in as she had so often done before. She regretted not having learned to play the piano herself but knew it was too late now just as it was too late for so many other things.
Miss Wood had a married sister in another state, her only family, as both her parents were dead, and her sister had two children, the younger one being Melanie's age, but Miss Wood had never taken an interest in them. She didn't really like children and liked them less the older she got, for they were unruly and demanding. She liked them best when they sat still and didn't open their mouths as in her library class, all except Melanie whom she loved and could forgive anything. In earlier years, her sister, like Trish, had tried to make her over, but seemed now to have written her off as a lost cause and sighed wearily when Miss Wood described her life on the rare occasions when she visited them in their picture-perfect house on a street called Oak Ridge Drive and her dull husband sat around reading a newspaper and scratching himself and the children teased each other and nagged their mother and Miss Wood felt like shouting at them to shut up and stand in the corner and was impatient to end the visit and get back to her own life and the book she was reading and her cocoa and little Melanie. One time her sister said, "Don't you get lonely being alone?" and Miss Wood said, "I'm with people all day long," and her sister said, "I mean after work," and Miss Wood said, "No, not at all," and it was true, getting out every day took something out of her, sometimes it was hard to get out of bed, and she came home exhausted and looked forward to settling in for a quiet evening and looked forward even more to weekends when she could luxuriate in total leisure and perhaps Melanie would come over and they would spend the day together, or Melanie might bring a friend and they would look at her books, for Melanie must have boasted about how many she had, must have been promoting Miss Wood to her friends, for now that Melanie was out of elementary school it might have added something to her prestige to have a special relationship such as she had with Miss Wood, making her seem more like an adult, for Miss Wood treated her as an equal and sought her opinion and deferred to her, unlike her mother, who still treated her like a child, and the idea that Melanie spoke about her to her friends gave Miss Wood much pleasure and she imagined the things Melanie might say and found that they were pretty much the same as the things Miss Wood herself would say in the many conversations she conducted with herself.
In the seventh grade Melanie got her period and little breasts and some pimples and told Miss Wood about the boys she liked and dressed with a little less flair but still quite stylishly and seemed to want to fit in more than she wanted to lead for there must have been other girls like her from different elementary schools and maybe some with more charisma, and again Miss Wood had a sense of her inhabiting a separate world that excluded her, among her peers, the world of adolescence, and fighting there to hold her own, and one day she was almost in tears because a boy she had a crush on had taken another girl to the movies, and this vulnerability of hers, rather than eliciting Miss Wood's sympathy, was a kind of disappointment and depressed her, for she expected so much from her, seeing her as a surrogate self, better made than she was, doing all he things Miss Wood had never done with perfect aplomb. Melanie was taking a creative writing class and French and they were doing geometry in math and world history for the first time and Miss Wood remembered how she used to read Don Quixote to Melanie's sixth grade class on Friday afternoons as a special treat and how she had always kept track of what Melanie was reading and even reread some of the books herself anticipating the pleasure that Melanie would get, seeing the story through Melanie's eyes and experiencing the wonder of a child..
Sometimes they didn't see each other for weeks. Sometimes Miss Wood felt a little neglected and called Trish and talked to her for a while out of politeness, though they were still warm friends, and then said, "Let me say hello to Melanie," for that was the reason for the call, and Miss Wood sometimes found herself sounding plaintive when she said to Melanie, "Why don't you came over anymore?" and Melanie would say because she'd been so busy and went on for a while bubbling over with all the things she'd been doing and Miss Wood was inevitably won over by her enthusiasm and forgave her the neglect and they would meet from time to time as they always had or Melanie would come over occasionally for lunch on a Saturday and Miss Wood would ask her what she was reading or what she was learning and though Melanie seemed more inclined to talk about her social life once Miss Wood got her on track she shifted gears and they talked about literature and art and music and Miss Wood was pleased that Melanie asked her so many questions and wanted to know so many things, though of course Melanie never asked her personal questions, being too self-absorbed at this age, far more self-absorbed than she had been as a small child when she had asked Miss Wood why she wasn't married or why she lived alone and Miss Wood had launched into various rationalizations that were meant to satisfy her curiosity and discourage further questions.
Beatrice, or Bea as she was called, had invited her to dinner not long after her marriage to Mr. Franks and Miss Wood had seen immediately, now that the first flush of conjugality had worn off, that she had pretty much taken charge of things and rather than being eternally grateful to Mr. Franks for having rescued her from spinsterhood, lorded it over him as though she hadn't been pining for a man for years, and Miss Wood resented her for it, for the way she made him jump up and bring her things though she might be a step away, though never failing to call him "dear," resented her self-assurance, resented her almost voluptuous ease in the married state and how boldly she might behave in the marriage bed.
While Mr. Franks was clearing the table and serving his wife and her friend tea in the living room and afterwards doing the dishes, Beatrice told Miss Wood how she had gone about furnishing the apartment and how she was looking for a house and how she was trying to have a baby and how she would quit teaching once it came. Beatrice then showed Miss Wood some of her wedding gifts, calling into the kitchen for her husband to fetch them: "Dear, could you bring in the fondue pot your Aunt Milly got us. I want to show it to Caroline"; or, "Dear, would you go into the bedroom and bring out that quilt we got from Stan and Vi." Miss Wood cooed and smiled but her heart wasn't in it. "Oh yes, this is lovely," she'd say; or, "How really nice."
She felt unsettled when she got back home. Never would she treat a man like that. She imagined the man sitting opposite her in their living room and would of course bring him tea and then sit on the floor at the foot of his chair and lean her face against his leg and feel his fingers in her hair. And he would say, "I especially like your collection of books. It shows good taste." And afterwards to bed.
Miss Wood did not own a television set or read a newspaper or go to the movies but went to see a play or concert from time to time. She hated to go alone and to be seen as a single and perhaps undesired woman and had gone with Melanie a number of times, but more for educational purposes, and once even with Trish, to a play by Tennessee Williams, something about iguanas, which she had enjoyed while Trish had fidgeted, making a few wisecracks in the intermissions and saying she'd rather go dancing. Miss Wood had never gone dancing, had not even danced as a teenager or by herself as a child spinning round and round as little Melanie often had until she got dizzy and fell down and laughed and got up and tried again while Miss Wood fretted and clucked her tongue. She imagined that Trish had fallen down once or twice too in her time when she'd had a little too much to drink and remembered those nights when she had gone out with Val and the smell of her perfume and the electricity in the air and how she had wanted to forget herself and fall into bed with both of them wearing perfume herself and a sequined dress like Trish's and their hands all over her.
Miss Wood sat in the school library day after day and had her classes so under control that she could slip out for five or ten minutes at any time and chat with one of the teachers in the hall about certain problems they might be having in the school, a shortage of board erasers, the quality of food in the cafeteria, a child caught stealing, the provocative way one of the substitute teachers was dressing. This broke the monotony. A little gossip was always invigorating. But she loved the library. She felt that everything in it belonged to her, all the books and learning materials and displays and even the chairs and tables. It was, she liked to note, the fourth largest space in the school after the gymnasium and the cafeteria and the auditorium. For a while, in more recent years, Mr. Becker, the gym teacher, who always had a whistle hanging from his neck, had shown an interest in her, but he was always sweating and his chest and arms were covered with thick hair, so that she thought of him as an ape more than as a man, and she herself so perfectly groomed, with just a touch of gray in her hair now, and her tailored suits right out of a fashion magazine and her starched white blouses and her gold or silver pins, so that she imagined it might be this that aroused him, the idea of disheveling her with his meaty hands and taking her roughly, and she was repelled though she could imagine herself beneath him, struggling perhaps, the skirt pulled up almost to her hips and his mouth on hers and the smell of garlic and his sweat and a river of blood between her legs. Sometimes when she thought of these things she started breathing fast and touched herself and moaned. Then she curled herself into a ball and went to sleep.
Miss Wood had saved a lot of money and treated herself to expensive clothes, just a few items from time to time, the suits and blouses and woolen dresses in charcoal gray that lay soft against her skin and imported shoes and silky underwear. It was important to look one's best. Occasionally she bought a painting from a local gallery. She had budgets for everything: this much for that and that much for this, month by month and year by year, and always a pillow or safety margin in the bank. She knew there was more that she could have done but the risks or responsibilities seemed too great, learning to drive and getting a car, for example, or taking a trip to Europe. She took two weeks in New England every summer, in a pleasant little resort. They'd known her there for twenty years and there were some elderly gentlemen who might share her table on the veranda when supper was served outside and everything was very proper and everyone's privacy was respected and they were still strangers after all these years. And when she came back home after the cool mountain nights the heat and stillness of the city streets had a special charm and she sat by her open window for many hours with her elbows on the windowsill listening to the distant traffic like a call to another life and imagining lonely rooms and twisted sheets and flashing neon lights seen through broken blinds or dingy shades, and later a sudden downpour in the sleeping city and the raindrops dancing on the pavement underneath the yellow lamps.
These lonely nights stretched across her life sharp and jagged like broken glass or shattered dreams. The heaviness settled over her as the hours crept toward midnight and often she laid her book aside and stared blankly into the room and sat perfectly still for many minutes at a time as though expecting something to disturb the silence of the room but no sound ever came and she had to rouse herself to take up the book again and read another page. It makes no sense at all, she'd tell herself, not really knowing what she meant.
When Melanie was in the ninth grade there was much talk about what high school she would attend. She had become a beautiful girl, past the age of adolescent awkwardness, fully grown, more settled in herself. Miss Wood would have liked to see her go to a special high school for the arts or sciences but as was to be expected Val and Trish objected and Melanie herself didn't seem to care so she was enrolled in the neighborhood high school, known for its football team. During the summer Val and Trish and Melanie and Melanie's brother went to stay on a farm somewhere in the midwest, in Kansas or Iowa, where Melanie's grandparents lived, and when they got back Melanie told Miss Wood that when she graduated from high school she was going to hitchhike across America and visit them again. "That could be dangerous," Miss Wood said, but Melanie reassured her like an experienced traveler and also told her that she'd met the sweetest boy there who was going to come east to go to college so maybe they would go back together and Miss Wood wondered if they had been intimate and tried to find out by cross examining her casually about how they'd spent their time together, Melanie and her young man, and it didn't take much to get an arch look out of her and Miss Wood was afraid that Melanie would ask her about her own teenage experiences and also alarmed at the thought that she might have been sleeping with someone at such an early age or even engaging in heavy petting as it once was called. "We're going to write to each other every day," Melanie concluded.
"What do your parents think about this?" Miss Wood said.
"About what?" Melanie said.
"About having a boyfriend."
"They don't even know."
"I don't think so."
She had a new way of talking now, picked up in the junior high school or from watching television – it was hard to know whether the kids got it from the sitcoms or the sitcoms got it from the kids – saying things like "whatever" and "duh" quite frequently so that she really didn't sound like herself. She dressed more casually too, almost sloppily, and had a heavier, slower walk, as though conscious of herself as a sexual object, there to be caressed by the eyes of sweaty boys. In her first year in high school she went out with a number of boys and of course wrote to the one out there in the midwest, though not every day, and was still popular because she was beautiful and smart and Miss Wood was relieved that she didn't go out for cheerleading, which Trish had encouraged her to do, thinking no doubt that this was the only way a teenage girl could shine. And Miss Wood was aware of the irony of the fact that while Melanie advanced through life she herself was being left behind, stuck in grades one through six like a backward child, and thought for a while that she might change schools, but was afraid to in the end, and even let Mr. Becker take her to a concert and he of course started in with her in his clumsy way, trying to put his arm around her in the concert hall, and it had made her skin creep and she had felt such a tightness in her stomach that it had ached the entire evening.
It had always been a pleasant town and it had always been safe to walk the streets at night for a women alone like Miss Wood but now there were noisy teenagers hanging out on her block so she kept the radio tuned to the music station when she read and a few of them had made rude remarks to her when she passed them in the street and she was convinced they were using drugs or drinking and she was a little bit afraid of them and consulted Trish, who told her to call the police, but that had only helped for a while and Miss Wood began to pray they wouldn't come and cringed when they did and she heard their laughter and loud voices down below and made the radio louder until she drowned them out and she felt secure again and didn't leave the house in the evening until she was sure they weren't there and always came back in a cab that took her to her door. Then someone broke into the apartment and she felt unsafe again, terrified really. She thought at first it might have been one of the teenagers but the police assured her that it would have been an addict looking for cash. He'd made a mess but took only a few pieces of worthless jewelry, leaving the front door chained from inside as a precaution against her unexpected appearance, so that when Miss Wood tried to get in she couldn't and didn't understand how the chain had gotten on the latch until a neighbor came along and explained the thing to her. Miss Wood took stock of her situation and very boldly decided to move. It was the most decisive thing she had done in years. She found a more expensive apartment in a better neighborhood and settled in quickly enough with the same furniture in the same three rooms, placing everything exactly where it had originally been. She had half-hoped to make new friends but the neighbors were no more friendly than in the other place though shopping was convenient and she was still fairly close to Trish's place and they all came over to visit her, even Val, and brought some wine and a little gift and they sat around talking but didn't stay for supper and Melanie seemed a little out of sorts, not accustomed to having her parents there, and didn't say two words, but Miss Wood understood and even winked at her to let her know she did. The next time she saw Melanie it was for lunch and Miss Wood bought her a book as she occasionally did and they talked about modern writers though Miss Wood's heart still belonged to her oldtime favorites, and most of all Sir Walter Scott – she had the set in 24 volumes but Melanie had only read a few – and Melanie told her about school and Miss Wood told her about the teenagers who had harassed her on the old street and the addicts there and hoped Melanie would be smart enough to stay away from such things and they looked out the window of the little restaurant she liked to take her to where she always poured a little of her wine into Melanie's glass and winked at her, making sure the waiter didn't see, and it was autumn and the leaves were turning lovely colors and she felt a terrible hollowness in the pit of her stomach mixed with such sweet yearning and such tender love for the child who sat across the table from her with her face so animated and her eyes sparkling as she talked so that Miss Wood envied her too, envied her youth and hope and the limitless horizons of her life.
Melanie had another year of high school to go. There was talk of the state university because of the low tuition and there was no doubt that Melanie's marks were good enough for any school but she didn't know what she wanted to study and Miss Wood threw out various suggestions and Melanie would quickly shake her head as though they were flavors of ice cream or games you proposed to a bored child.
"But what do you like the most?" Miss Wood said.
"I don't know," Melanie said. "I like to write. Maybe journalism."
"That's a good idea."
"We'll see. I don't have to decide yet."
"You could be famous."
"That isn't important," Melanie said. She had a pointed way of talking when she was being serious as though she had already developed an uncompromising philosophy of life.
"Aren't you excited to be going off to college?" Miss Wood said.
"I haven't been accepted anywhere yet."
"Oh, you will. You know you will."
"I hate that word."
"You know. Whatever."
"That's the way kid's talk, Caroline. Didn't you have things you said when you were a kid?"
"Not like that. Like we didn't care."
Melanie looked like she wanted to say whatever again so Miss Wood changed the subject.
"Do you still write to that boy?" she said.
"The one you met when you visited your grandparents."
"Oh him. That wasn't serious."
"So you're not going there this summer?"
"No, why should I go there?" Melanie said.
"Don't you remember? You said you'd hitchhike."
Melanie laughed. "Did I? That must have been centuries ago."
These meetings left her with an afterglow like a little light that kept on shining when you closed your eyes and then it faded and she was alone again and the week began with the scrape of little feet and little chairs across the linoleum floor of the library room and everyone talking in whispers and Miss Wood opening windows with a long pole like a grappling hook and the heat from the radiators in winter and sometimes the children having to thaw out before the first class could begin, their fingers frozen, their faces red and the cheeks so smooth she wanted to put her hand against them and feel the perfect skin and the little girls with their skinny legs and bony knees so fragile and yet so self-contained owning themselves so completely in a way Miss Wood never had. They came and went day after day, marching in and out of the library like little soldiers and Miss Wood in and out of the teachers room and avoiding Mr. Becker now, and Beatrice, who came by to visit from time to time, had two children and didn't seem to appreciate the gift that had been bestowed on her, perhaps having forgotten what her life had been. She lived in the suburbs now. Mr. Franks had left teaching, most likely at her urging, and worked now in a textbook firm, making better money as she put it, and she was teaching classes in a private school and drove a car and wore an expensive-looking coat trimmed with fur and Miss Wood could imagine them sitting around a fire in their snug home singing Christmas carols and opening gifts and eating turkey dinners with the snow on the ground outside, miles and miles of the purest snow covering all the countryside like a picture from her childhood.
Some of the older teachers had retired after 40 years of being Miss O'Connor or Miss Holtzman or Miss Day and the younger ones belonged to a different generation, more like Melanie than herself and some already married, one of them quite beautiful and a little unsure of herself and married to a lawyer who picked her up from time to time and they seemed so happy that Miss Wood sometimes shed a tear when she watched them walking out together arm in arm. She had always been sentimental but was becoming more so as time went on and more prone to tears, tears of happiness for other people, some of them real, others the imaginary figures she encountered in books and left with a sigh. Miss Wood took the bus to school and back now and was home by four and had a week's meals cooked up and in the freezer, eating sparingly and doing her light housework and then settling in for the evening and sometimes wishing she had tests to mark or some other occupation other than her endless reading and thought of getting a TV but resisted the temptation, more loyal to her idea of herself than to her actual self, which occasionally required relief or relaxation. It was rare that the phone or the doorbell rang and when it did she was a little apprehensive, fearing the worst. For a time she had dropped in on a neighbor who was a little friendlier than the others, once or twice a month, and they had exchanged these visits over a cup of coffee for nearly a year but then she had moved away. Trish said why don't you get a cat or dog but Miss Wood wouldn't hear of it. In her wildest dreams she had imagined Melanie at college and she herself nearby and Melanie living with her instead of in the dorms, Melanie in her own bedroom and Miss Wood in hers and having breakfast together and parting in the street, or perhaps learning to drive and buying a secondhand car and driving her to school before getting to the library. If she'd known where Melanie was going she would have been prepared to move there too.
But sometimes when she looked at Melanie she wasn't sure just what she saw. Melanie was a young woman now. The child was gone and she sometimes had a preoccupied air and was not always communicative so that when Miss Wood asked her if anything was wrong she'd say, "No, nothing," and put on an artificial smile, but once she said, in such an ardent voice that Miss Wood was somewhat taken aback, "Did you ever feel that nothing matters?"
"Why, no," Miss Wood said. "Everything matters."
"To whom?" she said. "You just finish living and die and that's the end of it. What difference does it make what you do?"
"That's a terrible thing to say. Life is what you make of it."
"Those are just words," Melanie said.
"You shouldn't be thinking like that. Everything is still ahead of you."
All this alarmed Miss Wood and she thought about talking to Trish about it but she held off because Trish had a way of making light of things and it was true that Melanie's moods shifted and sometimes she was more cheerful than at others and was going right ahead with plans for school and studying for exams and sometimes had a boyfriend and was highly regarded by one and all, an honors student and class valedictorian, so maybe it was just a phase, Miss Wood thought, and made light of it herself, hoping for the best, and went on with her own life which also made her wonder from time to time what the point of it was.
The pretty new teacher with the lawyer husband got pregnant and left and Bea's kids were teenagers now and Val and Trish were almost middle-aged and getting heavy in the haunches and time was passing so fast and yet the evenings stretched out endlessly when she found she couldn't read so she bought a small television set and sat in front of it for hours at a time and had trouble sleeping, getting up three or four times a night, so she stopped drinking cocoa before she went to bed and that helped though she had awful dreams and was often exhausted in the morning and had to drag herself to school. I am just counting out the days, she said. In the teachers room she sat by herself having her midmorning coffee and the sandwich she brought from home. When Mr. Becker came in she averted her eyes and unconsciously pulled down her skirt and could feel him looking at her and was terrified that one day he would corner her in the hall and propose marriage, just blurt it out in his clumsy way, and again she had the most vivid pictures of his apelike body and even of being taken from behind and not a word being spoken between them but coupling like animals until they fell exhausted into a heavy sleep. Mr. Becker looked at the other gray-haired teachers too but they looked back and must have enjoyed the attention though there was nothing between them, Miss Wood was sure of that, and at least she was still slim and not bloated like the others and still dressed well so that she might have been an empowered woman, that was the word they used, an executive of some sort presiding over business meetings in conference rooms with tables longer than any she had ever seen and Mr. Becker making a presentation about gym equipment and Miss Wood telling him to speak a little louder so that they could all hear what he was saying.
Now that she had a television she thought she would be able to form a clearer idea of the world around her and even believed she might come to understand Melanie better by understanding youngsters like her, but they all seemed emptyheaded, or perhaps the writers and producers were, and she soon became bored with it and concluded that she had not missed anything at all during all these years though she kept it on throughout the evening as though to have someone in the house and felt lonelier still when she turned it off. This is not healthy, she thought, and tried to get out more, though she really had nowhere to go, and in the end went back to reading with the television turned on very low, glancing at it from time to time to see if anything of interest was transpiring there. At nine o'clock she had a snack and sometimes moved from one chair to another or sat by the open window on a kitchen chair to enjoy the breeze when it was not too cold and always went to the toilet before she went to bed so that she would not have to get up in the middle of the night and slept sensually in the nude now beneath many blankets and left the bedroom door open in case burglars came so that she might hear them and start to scream.
In the end Melanie went to the state university and Miss Wood was not pleased about that because with her grades and her head she could have gotten into a prestigious school but she hadn't even tried. Miss Wood spoke to her about it but there was a problem about money and she had gotten a grant and it was all settled before Miss Wood knew what was happening though she had been prepared to help out and they visited her after a month or two, it was just a hundred miles away, and it was thoughtful of Val and Trish to ask her to come up with them and she was living in the dorms in a messy room with two other girls and it was like the movies, the way they talked and dressed and kept the room, and though it was a girls' dorm it was full of boys and everyone visiting back and forth and Miss Wood thought, Who am I to interfere in all this, this is her life now and I am not part of it, and it made her sad to think that the old connection was getting weaker but she accepted it and would be content to follow Melanie's career from a distance and see her less frequently but bask in a kind of reflected glory as she made her way through life. It is only right, she thought, and later she would be an aunt to her children and hoped to live nearby and would even move again if she had to.
They had a talk before they all went back, walking behind the others. Melanie told her about her courses, though not with excessive enthusiasm, seeming to take everything in stride and saying that campus life was all right as were the teachers and the kids but finally opened up a little and said she'd had an argument in their sociology class when the teacher, a woman who wore dental plates that made clicking noises when she talked, had blandly informed them that statistically there was very little chance that any of them would amount to anything, or words to that effect. This had enraged her.
"I thought you didn't want to be famous," Miss Wood said with a little smile, as though this proved a point.
"I don't," Melanie said.
"So what do you care what your teacher said?"
"They're all so smug in their little worlds," Melanie said. "They think they have all the answers."
Miss Wood understood that under the circumstances it would not be wise to take the part of the teacher. "Well, you'll just have to show her otherwise, won't you," she said.
"It isn't worth the bother," Melanie replied.
They left her in the parking lot and saw her again when she came home between semesters and they had Christmas dinner together and there was the spring vacation too and then summer came and Melanie was not around much and then she went off on a trip with some friends and didn't come back in the fall. It was Trish who told her that she had dropped out of school and Miss Wood lost her voice and couldn't believe what she was hearing and when she spoke it was with a sob. "But what happened?" she said.
"She says it's a waste of time," Trish said. "Look, lots of kids do it. It isn't the end of the world."
"Where is she?" Miss Wood said.
"On her way to L.A."
"What's she going to do there?"
"She says she has to put her head together."
Miss Wood suspected that Trish was not altogether displeased with the turn Melanie's life had taken, as though it were a vindication, putting Miss Wood in her place, as with the reading and the piano, and resented Trish for a while, but called her often, seeking information, and Trish assured her that everything was all right, Melanie was doing fine and there was nothing at all to worry about because that's what kids were like.
"When is she going to come back?" Miss Wood said.
"Who knows?" Trish replied.
"Can I write to her?"
"She doesn't have a permanent address. You know how kids are."
"Don't hide anything from me, Trish," Miss Wood said in a strained voice. "Is anything wrong?"
"Nothing at all," Trish said. "Believe me."
A year passed, and then another, and she spoke to Trish on the phone and Trish sometimes knew where Melanie was and sometimes didn't, saying she might be in Europe now, or in Mexico, or was back in L.A. and doing fine. Miss Wood could only hope for the best and missed Melanie terribly though she realized that the Melanie she missed no longer existed and the more she thought of Melanie the farther back in time she went, until she remembered her only as a small child. That had been the best time, certainly the best time for Miss Wood, when Melanie had loomed so large in her life and she remembered a look she had had on a certain day in her yellow slicker and the hood almost hiding her face or wearing a helmet and pads on her elbows and knees when she took her skateboard out or jumping rope with childlike earnestness or even eating ice cream and trying very hard to keep it from dripping.
Then one night, quite late, the doorbell rang and it was Melanie. At first Miss Wood didn't recognize her. She was gaunt and wearing rags, a living skeleton. "Hello," she said in a small, almost chastened voice.
And Miss Wood let her in, not knowing what to say or do, for it wasn't really Melanie she saw there. And Melanie fell back on the sofa as though exhausted and closed her eyes for a few seconds and then leaned forward and said, "Can I stay here tonight?"
"Of course," Miss Wood said. "But what's wrong? What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," Melanie said.
"Where have you been, Melanie? You've been gone two years."
"All kinds of places."
"Do your parents know you're here?"
Melanie looked at her blankly, as though she had forgotten she had parents or was trying to place them geographically. "I don't think so," she said.
"Are you sick?"
"Don't worry. You won't catch anything from me."
"I wasn't thinking about that. You just look so terrible. Do you want something to eat? Would you like to take a shower?"
"Just let me get into focus here."
She must have had a technique for remembering who or where she was because she closed her eyes again and started breathing deeply and then covered her face with her hands as though meditating and finally looked up and said, "Can I have a cup of coffee?"
Miss Wood brought her the coffee and watched her drink it. She couldn't have weighed a hundred pounds. Her wrists were so thin they might have slipped through the handle of the cup. "You've got to eat," Miss Wood said.
"Maybe later. I'll be all right."
Later Miss Wood made her a light snack and Melanie ate it very slowly as though unused to food and seemed to be nodding off as she ate so Miss Wood made up the sofa and before she fell asleep Melanie said, "Don't tell my parents. I don't want them to see how I look," and Miss Wood was flattered that she'd come to her and not to them and saw her address on a slip of paper that had fallen from Melanie's hand as though she'd clutched it for a thousand miles. And in the morning Melanie vomited and must have had diarrhea too because there was an awful smell in the toilet and the bowl was smeared and then she had coffee and seemed all right for a while and they were able to talk though Melanie didn't tell her much other than that she'd been here and there, on the road a lot and bedding down just about anywhere and living with all kinds of people for weeks or months at a time and even being in jail for a while.
"My God," Miss Wood said, "what's happened to you?"
"Don't lay that on me," Melanie said. "All right?"
"How can I help you? Please tell me how I can help you."
"You can't," Melanie said.
And then she was gone and no one heard from her again and no one knew where she was. She was gone from their lives, from her parents and from Miss Wood, as though all those years together counted for nothing, she was swallowed up in the enormous land as though on another planet, far out in space, irretrievably lost, lost the way lives are lost, the way Melanie's life had been lost for no reason that Miss Wood could think of and perhaps no reason that even Melanie could think of, it had just happened like one of those gaskets blowing in an engine high above the clouds or a valve giving out in a chamber of the heart and causing everything to fall apart.
And Miss Wood grew old but she did not change her ways. She appeared each morning for her first library class and read each evening until it was time to go to bed and saw a play or two and chatted with Trish from time to time and still bought fashionable clothes. She regretted growing old but not in relation to a past that had been happy. She had never been happy, if the truth be told. She regretted growing old because with each passing year she moved farther away from even the possibility of happiness. This was her life. This was what it had been and this was what it would always be and it was as if she was being drawn into quicksand, sucked into the vortex of her own lost years. And she knew that there was not a moment of her life that she would have wished to relive, not even her youth. There had been no carefree years for her. She had always been shy, awkward, ill at ease, a burden to herself and perhaps to others Each day, each year had brought her pain, so that she would have had to laugh if anyone had said to her, "How lucky you are to be so young." And yet even in that lost childhood there might have been buried a hint of promise, something that might have blossomed but had not, something that was missed, as though a stage of her life had been skipped, as though she had gone from point A to point C as in those rare diseases when the child grows old before its time. In that childhood time she had seen the contours of a life that might have been, but it had not come. And then she was thirty and then she was forty and now she was sixty, graying, tired, slow. And she held her book in her lap and thought of her wasted life and thought of Melanie too and a terrible sadness came over her, for all the lonely people in the world and for herself, and it was too much to bear, such waste, so many shattered dreams. And the lights were dim and everything was as it had always been, she was alone and it was night and Miss Wood stared into the room for a long while without thinking, without seeing, and then she laid her book aside and began to cry uncontrollably.
This story previously appeared in New Paradigm and Storylandia.