Scene: Arnold’s attic room in his aunts’ shambling Victorian house in Cape May, New Jersey, on an afternoon in August of that forgotten year: 1963...
“Well,” I said, “I’d better go now.”
“Yes, let’s go then,” she said, although she continued to fool with my hair, as if she were intently adjusting a display of flowers in a vase. “Quickly, Arnold.”
I turned, leaving her hand in mid-air, and went down the steps and to the door, with Miss Evans hard on my heels.
It was all I could do not to hunch my shoulders up to my ears, bracing myself against the possibility that she might leap upon my back like a maddened she-baboon.
I made it safely down to the hall, but here the faithful reader will not be surprised to learn that I suddenly felt an intense need to go to the bathroom. I considered skipping it and holding it in till I got to Mrs. Biddle’s house, but that would mean having to excuse myself and ask to use her bathroom immediately upon my arrival, causing her to wonder why I hadn’t relieved myself at my aunts’ house less than two blocks away, like a normal person. And besides, hadn’t I had enough high adventure the previous evening trying to find the bathroom at that good lady’s house? But opposed to all the above was the prospect of going to the bathroom here, like a normal person, but having Miss Evans waiting outside in the hall, listening to my every urinary and ablutionary sound.
Quite the quandary, and I suppose I stood there trying to come to a decision for a moment or two, or three, like a sweating wax statue, just a scant few feet from the bathroom.
“What’s the matter, Arnold?” said Miss Evans, coming around to face me, and putting her hand on my arm.
“Nothing,” I said.
She looked into my eyes, I suppose searchingly.
“It’s never nothing with you, Arnold. It’s always something. And I mean that in a good way. Something. Never nothing.”
I hated to burst her bubble, but anyway I said, “Well, really I was just trying to decide if I should use the bathroom.”
“Why shouldn’t you? I mean if you have to go. Do you have to go?”
I stood there. She was still holding onto my arm.
“Go, Arnold,” she said again.
“All right,” I said. “But I want to ask you —”
“Anything,” she said. “Anything at all. Cross the Sahara on camel’s back? Paddle up the
Amazon in a dug-out canoe? Cross the Arctic in a dogsled?”
“Climb Mount Everest?”
“No. I just wanted to ask you not to wait outside the bathroom.”
“Oh! Of course! I mean of course not! I wouldn’t dream! Wait!”
“That scritching.” In fact I did hear a scritching noise. “It’s the phonograph needle,” she said. "The album side has come to its end.”
“Well, better flip it over,” I said.
“No,” she said, “I don’t think I want to listen to Tosca any more today. I want to go out, out to where there is life, and people, cocktails and merriment. And besides, I’m meeting that nice Father Reilly.” She paused, as if to give me space to say something. “Yes,” she replied to my non-existent question, “after your miracle today I felt I needed to talk to someone, so I borrowed your aunts’ telephone and dialed directory assistance, got the number of the rectory and called him. He agreed to meet me. At the Pilot House. Tell me, Arnold, would it be appropriate of me to order a highball?”
“Sure,” I said. Oh, by the way, she was still gripping onto my arm, my biceps, but the blood hadn’t gotten completely cut off yet.
“Good,” she said, “Do you suppose Father Reilly drinks?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said, although I had never met a priest who didn’t drink, forget about the Irish ones.
“Well,” she said, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Now go, go use the bathroom! Why are you dawdling here You’ll be late for your tea date with Mrs. Biddle.”
“Okay,” I riposted.
I tried to sidle past her to get to the bathroom, and she turned with me, as if we were performing some painfully awkward square-dance, her hand sliding along my arm but not quite letting go.
“See ya,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll see you later. And this time, Arnold, will you please leave the bathroom by conventional means?”
“Yes,” I promised.
“No,” I said, and gently but firmly lifting her hand from my wrist, I disengaged myself and went into the bathroom and closed the door. I stood there quietly, thick seas of sweat oozing from my pores into my clothes. After perhaps half a minute I finally heard her footsteps go away down the hall, and, putting my ear to the door, I could even hear her close her own door.
As swiftly as possible, I urinated, washed my hands, tossed some cold water on my face, gave my teeth a quick brush, opened the door, peeked out toward Miss Evans’s room just to make sure the coast was clear, then tripped down the hall and bounded down the steps like an antelope before the madwoman could burst out of her apartment and trap me again.
My mother and aunts and Mrs. Rathbone were all still in the living room, and for good measure Miss Rathbone and Steve were there, too. Steve wore a pale yellow suit and Miss Rathbone wore a nice dress which seemed to be made of pink tissue paper, but they both looked somewhat rumpled, as if they too had recently risen from a nap, but with all their clothes on.
“And where are you off to all dressed up in your Easter outfit?” cried Steve.
“Oh, shut up, Steve,” said Miss Rathbone, and I realized they had not been napping but drinking.
“I’m having tea with Mrs. Biddle,” I said.
“Oh, how Oscar Wilde,” said Steve.
“Mrs. Biddle is a beautiful woman,” said Miss Rathbone, and I noticed that she had one of her pink cigarettes in each of her hands. “I would love to do her portrait.”
“Portrait of a grand old broad,” said Steve. He tried to tap a cigarette of his own into an ashtray and missed.
My three aunts were all looking as intently at Steve and Miss Rathbone as if they were a TV show, Burns and Allen, or Ralph and Alice Kramden.
“Will you be home for dinner, Arnold?” asked my sainted mother.
I told her maybe not, but not to worry about it.
“But we made sauerbraten.”
“I love sauerbraten,” said Steve.
“Okay, see you all later,” I said, heading for the door.
“High society,” said Steve. “No time for us common folk.”
He went on to say something else but I was already out the door.
As a railroad man and a church usher I have always prided myself on my punctuality, and here I was already ten or fifteen minutes late for my tea with Mrs. Biddle. Good for me she only lives less than two blocks away, and so not two minutes after ejecting myself from my aunts’ house I was knocking on the stout wooden frame of Mrs. Biddle’s screen door.
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