Small Acts

by Susan Knox
Olisia hadn’t been out to lunch in ages, but Margaret, a Chicago friend of eighty years, was in Seattle for the day and sending a car. At 11:30 a dove-gray limousine, doors embossed with Sorrento Hotel, arrived at Olisia’s apartment building. The uniformed driver helped her into the backseat and showed her how to buckle the seat belt. As they drove First Avenue in downtown Seattle, Olisia leaned forward peering over the driver’s shoulder to make sure he was minding the speed limit. From Madison Street he turned into the hotel’s front entrance. The Sorrento Hotel was a fancy place with palm trees, circular red-brick drive, and young men to hand her out of the car, escort her into the lobby, and guide her to the Hunt Club, where Margaret waited at a table.

Margaret stood up and engulfed Olisia’s petite body in a tight embrace. Margaret’s gold-rimmed glasses magnified her green eyes, her snowy hair was permed into tight curls, and she was wearing a peach silk suit. Olisia was enough of a seamstress to recognize the professional tailoring that eased the jacket over Margaret’s ample bust. She wore a heavy, gold necklace and earrings. Olisia was glad she’d worn her wedding pearls and pink wool dress.

Margaret looked for the waiter in the manner of a woman accustomed to being attended to and ordered club sandwiches and coffee for both of them. Margaret hadn’t changed; she always took charge. Olisia hadn’t changed either. She didn’t protest. All through school the other girls had avoided Margaret and her bossy ways, but Olisia felt sorry for her and became her friend.

In a ringing voice, Margaret launched into stories of her family and bragged about being in Seattle because her granddaughters were taking her on an Alaskan cruise. Olisia felt a stab of sadness. She had no grandchildren, no family.

“Did you think we’d still be around at eighty-five?” Margaret asked.

“I prayed to follow Walt. I wanted to die too, but God has a plan. It’s twenty-two years I’ve been alone.”

“Oh Lissy, don’t say that. What about your friends?”

“I don’t get out much.” Olisia looked down. “I don’t even go to church. No way to get there. I’m afraid to ride the bus. I’ve called the church office asking for a lift, but they never call back. Father Stephen didn’t come see me, didn’t even phone.” Olisia swiped her nose with her handkerchief. “I thought priests were supposed to tend to their flock.”

Margaret patted Olisia’s hand. “Come back to Chicago, Lissy, to the old neighborhood. You’ll have friends to keep you company, churchgoers to drive you to Mass, and caring people to help you.”

“Too many sad memories, Margaret,” said Olisia.

Margaret leaned forward, as if to tell a secret. “I’m not trying to scare you, but I saw a news story about an elderly woman whose house was repossessed by the county because she hadn’t paid her property taxes. When they broke into the house, they found her body. Mummified. She’d been dead eighteen months, and no one had missed her.”

Olisia gasped. “It could be me. I’ve fallen a couple of times in my apartment, and it took forever getting back on my feet.”

“All the more reason to come home to Chicago.”

“You know why we left Chicago. We didn’t even go back for my mother’s funeral.” After little Wally died, Walt and Olisia couldn’t bear watching friends raising families while they were childless, celebrating family holidays without their boy, seeing youngsters at their First Communion and Wally not among them. Olisia was unable to have another child, and while she’d wanted to adopt, Walt had refused.

“Surely you have some friends. What about your neighbors?”

“The people in my building smile when I see them at the mailbox or in the elevator but they’re not friendly. I don’t even know their names.” Olisia took a deep breath. “Walt made the friends. It’s hard for me.”

“You didn’t used to be this way, Lissy. Back in Chicago you were always so lively and fun to be with. What’s happened to you?”

Olisia gazed out the restaurant’s windows and watched a sunbreak illuminate the Seattle sky.

Margaret went on. “If you won’t come back to Chicago, go into a retirement home. You’ll be safe and you won’t have to worry about a thing.”

“It’s so much trouble to move.”

“Do you need money?”

“I’m fine. I have Walt’s pension and Social Security and quite a bit in savings.”

Margaret looked at her, her mouth firmly set. “Then don’t be foolish, Lissy. A retirement home would be for the best.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“You’re an old woman and you need support. If you won’t go to a retirement home, find someone to look in on you, help you with things you can’t do yourself, provide a little companionship.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m doing fine on my own, and I don’t need your advice. Now, let’s talk about something else or I’ll go home.”

Margaret sat back in her chair. In the old days Olisia had never talked back.

* * *

The following morning Olisia made a cup of Nescafé and settled into her window seat to people-watch. It was a soft fall day with gauzy light floating through wispy fog, and the locals seemed relaxed after navigating crowds of summer tourists. Olisia spotted some regulars; she called them friends, though they’d never met. A homeless man standing on the corner was selling Real Change newspapers. He wore earphones, singing and dancing to tunes but never making eye contact with potential customers. He rarely made a sale. Olisia lifted her hand and gave him a wave with her fingers, knowing he wouldn’t notice.

Another regular, a tall, slim blonde, walked the steep hill from Pike Place Market in long, easy strides. She wore a short, black, belted trench coat and black, patent leather boots. Olisia blew her a kiss, celebrating her fashion style. In the old days Olisia considered herself a fashion plate. She’d made all her own clothes, spent hours poring through Butterick, Simplicity, and McCall pattern catalogs at Cheshire Fabrics. She especially loved unfolding new tissue patterns with their bold, blue markings that indicated where to cut, pleat, fold, and dart. After Walt died and she prepared to move from her West Seattle home, she gathered her patterns, fabrics, scissors, pincushions, needles, spools of thread, Singer Featherweight sewing machine, and put everything in the front yard with a sign: FREE.

Olisia turned her attention back to the street. Another friend appeared, walking stiff-legged, as though her hips weren’t cooperating. She worried about the woman with platinum hair and red-rimmed glasses. Olisia could feel her tension just watching her move. Was she having problems? Trouble with her boss? Money issues? Was she all alone too? Olisia gave her a smile of support.

Her smile shifted to a frown as she spotted the clerk from the corner grocery where she bought her food—a black man with a foreign accent. She got up to rinse out her coffee cup.

Her mind turned to yesterday’s conversation with Margaret. She felt herself getting cross. What gave Margaret the right to dictate how she should live? Just because Margaret was surrounded with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren didn’t mean that those without family were needy. Yes, she missed Wally. Yes, she wished she had grandchildren, but she was not going to move into a retirement home because she was alone. She wouldn’t know where to start to find one, and even if she did, the thought of moving exhausted her. Anyway, Margaret didn’t know everything. Just last week Olisia’d heard on the radio that the Census Bureau reported two-thirds of Americans over eighty-five live alone. Two-thirds. That’s a lot of old people on their own, so why should it be any different for her? She would stay put.

Margaret was right about one thing, though. She would feel safer if someone looked in on her every day. But who on earth could she ask? She had no family or friends to turn to. Maybe the apartment manager. He lived in the building. He could easily check on her. She walked into her bathroom and gazed in the mirror, thinking about how Kurt would see her. An old woman with wispy, whey-colored hair, watery gray eyes, and faded lips. Would he take pity on her? He always called her Mrs. Z. It made her feel special. She practiced her plea to the reflected image. “You know I’m alone and I’m getting up in years, eighty-five now, and I wondered, could you knock on my door every morning, just to make sure I’m okay?”

She went down to the first floor. The door to the manager’s office was open. Kurt was sitting behind his metal desk, bending over a ledger. His pink scalp shone through his sparse, brown hair, and his blue shirt strained across his stomach.

“Good morning, Mrs. Z,” he said, raising his head. His black-rimmed glasses glared in the fluorescent light. Olisia stammered out her speech and watched Kurt’s face harden.

“No can do, Mrs. Z. The owner wouldn’t permit it. I have too much to do without checking on residents. Next thing I know, you’ll want me to pick up your groceries. You should ask a friend or relative. That’s what other people do.” Kurt returned to the paperwork on his desk.

Olisia trudged back to her apartment, her back aching, her bunions throbbing. It seemed a little thing to ask. She never complained like other tenants she’d overheard in the lobby. She unlocked her front door and crossed the worn, brown-speckled linoleum to the window seat and gazed at Elliott Bay. The water was choppy and sparking like a flint in the sun. Picking up a tattered, square pillow, faded and deflated by the years, she hugged it to her breasts as though embracing a child.

Olisia sat on the window seat’s edge, her head in her hands. If Wally had lived, he‘d be sixty-four years old, with children and grandchildren. If only she hadn’t let go of his hand to smell spring flowers blooming near the sidewalk. She could still hear the screech of truck tires and the thump. Old sorrow flowed over her body, but there were no tears left. Worn out, she lay down, pulled a throw over her legs, and dozed.

The wind whistling around the building woke her. She heard a door close. It must be her next-door neighbor, a young woman, around forty-five, with warm brown eyes and ruddy cheeks. She always greeted Olisia when they met in the hallway. I could invite her over for tea, Olisia thought, and ask her to look in on me.

Olisia hadn’t had a visitor in the twenty-two years she’d lived in her studio, but she was excited by the prospect of a caller. She surveyed her apartment with the eyes of a hostess. It was a small place, sparsely furnished and, after two decades, shabby. Its only redeeming feature was the large bay window facing Virginia Avenue. Olisia had installed foam cushions so she could sit to watch pedestrians or turn the other way to see a slice of Elliott Bay. She loved watching cargo ships sliding into port, passenger ferries soundlessly making their way across the water, hearing the comforting, deep bass of their horns on foggy mornings and the screech of seagulls swooping past her window.

Olisia had a Barcalounger covered in green and gold brocade worn down to the nub, a chipped, white-painted patio table with two chairs, a set she’d moved from her porch in West Seattle when she realized her kitchen table wouldn’t fit in the small room, and a twin bed covered with a pink chenille spread, shoved against the wall. Where could she seat a guest? Her only choice was the metal patio chairs, but they were so hard. She dragged the patio table across the linoleum floor to the center of the window seat. They’d sit on the cushions, and Olisia would give her guest the view of the bay.

Olisia considered a menu. She’d walk to the corner grocery to find fixings: white sandwich bread, ready-made egg salad, Milano cookies, a frozen Sara Lee coffee cake, and a small box of Earl Grey tea. She’d use her grandmother’s Polish teapot, hand-painted in the Flowering Peacock design. When Olisia left Chicago, her mother had placed the teapot in her hands, saying, “Keep it until you come home.”

Olisia pulled out a lace tablecloth, a wedding gift from Margaret. She spread the yellowing cloth on the patio table. It puddled on the floor, so she folded it into quarters. She wrote an invitation to tea on the only paper she had—an old steno pad.

Olisia stepped into her kitchen, laid the note on the counter, and reached her hand to the top shelf for her grandmother’s teapot. It was a stretch. She went up on her toes to tease the pot to the shelf edge. Just as she grasped it, she lost her balance and grabbed the counter.

The teapot crashed to the floor. The old Polish pot was in shards. Olisia looked down at broken bits around her feet. Lying among the ceramic pieces were two small booklets. Olisia groaned. Now she remembered why she hadn’t used the teapot. She never wanted to see these booklets again, but she couldn’t bear throwing them away.

The Allstate Life Insurance Company booklet had been stored in the knife drawer of their Chicago kitchen so it was handy when Herman Dudek made his monthly collection call. Herman had contacted the Zeglins shortly after Wally was born and suggested they take out a life insurance policy for him. Olisia resisted; it might be bad luck. Walt insisted the insurance was really a savings plan for Wally. They paid $3.75 every month, Herman stamping a box in the book to mark the payment.

The Zeglins had made forty-five payments when Wally was killed. When they packed up their home to leave Chicago, Olisia stuck the booklet in her grandmother’s teapot. There was no reason for putting the Allstate booklet in the teapot. There was no reason for not claiming the life insurance. They could have used the money for the move to Seattle, but neither Olisia nor Walt could bear to fill out the paperwork Herman dropped off at the house two weeks after Wally died.

The second booklet was an Ashland Savings and Loan account for Wally’s education. Olisia and Walt had dreamed of their son attending college. One Sunday afternoon they’d caught the No. 53 bus south to the University of Chicago and wheeled young Wally around, looking at huge buildings with tall spires and red roofs, young people walking the grounds, and they wondered how anyone found their way around—the campus was so big. They stepped inside the library and marveled at the marble floors, high ceilings, students reading and writing in a vast room with long tables and bright lamps. Each time they made a deposit to the college fund, Walt and Olisia imagined Wally as a young man, sitting in that library. There was $1,200 in the account, but when Walt and Olisia looked at the passbook, the image of Wally in his small casket crowded out any thought of withdrawing the money.

Olisia swept the broken teapot into a dustpan and deposited her last memento of family into the wastebasket. She wiped the dusty booklets and placed them on the top shelf, flicking them back with her fingertips, out of sight, vowing never to touch them again. She picked up the invitation to tea and sat down on a patio chair, turning the note over in her hands. After the loss of her grandmother’s teapot, she had no desire to entertain, but she could phone her neighbor to ask for help. She called Kurt for the name and number of the woman in 4D. Nancy Dominick. It was comforting to know what to call her. Olisia took a deep breath and dialed. When the answering machine came on, she hung up. She didn’t trust those machines.

She glanced at the kitchen clock. Half past twelve. Time for her daily trip to the corner convenience store. She always bought a hard-boiled egg for lunch, a TV dinner for her evening meal, and, if she needed them, milk and cornflakes.

Olisia walked to Belltown Market, just twenty steps on First Avenue. Making her way down the sidewalk was a trial. People were so rude these days, bumping into her, talking on their phones, not seeing her. Do old women become invisible? It wouldn’t take much of a push to take her off her feet. She could break a hip. Olisia hugged the side of the building for balance.

Then there was that foreign black man behind the counter who smiled at her when she entered the store. He always spoke to her when she checked out, but she couldn’t understand his thick, accented English. It was irritating.

“Mrs. Zeglin,” he greeted her as she brought her purchases to the counter. She wondered how he knew her name. It unsettled her. “Maybe I deliver? You call?” he said as he held his hand to his ear, mimicking a phone.

But Olisia couldn’t follow his offer. Foreigners. Can’t even learn our language. And his black skin, ebony-purple skin, skin color she’d never seen in her old Chicago neighborhood. And that big smile—he must be planning to cheat her. Can’t trust these people. She handed him the money for her food and counted the change before leaving. She felt his eyes on her as she made her way out of the store, and when she saw his reflection in the plate-glass window, he was no longer smiling.

Outside the market a thin, dark-haired priest in a hurry brushed by her. Father Stephen! Was he coming to visit her? She turned to catch his eye, to call out, and she extended her arm as though to tap his shoulder, but he was too far away, and she lost her balance and began sliding against the building’s wall, listing to her left, her feet slipping beneath her, and she watched, as if in slow motion, her body continue its downward motion, and she abruptly landed on the sidewalk, her breath huffing from her lungs, her hard-boiled egg rolling away, the turkey TV dinner crushed under her leg, her canvas bag squashed. She lay there for a few beats, getting her breath, gathering her strength, and she managed to sit up on the sidewalk. She took a shuddering breath and saw the black storekeeper’s face looking at her. She shrank back but his voice was gentle as he asked, “Mrs. Zeglin, are you all right? Shall I call an ambulance?”

“No, no,” she answered. “Just give me a moment.” She flexed her arms, pointed her toes, rolled her ankles, felt her thighs. “I’m fine, nothing broken.” She peered around his shoulder. “I thought I saw my priest.”

“Father Stephen? From St. Anne’s?”

“You know him?”

“I’m a member of St. Anne’s.”

Olisia stared at the shopkeeper. He’s a Catholic?

“I’ll just get up and go home,” Olisia said. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t even get to her knees.

“Will you let me help you?” the shopkeeper said. “My mother’s about your age. If she’d fallen, I’d want someone to help her. Please let me assist you.”

Olisia started to object, old fears filling her mind. Instead she asked, “Your mother? Does she live with you?”

“No, I had to flee Ethiopia, but she couldn’t bear to leave her homeland. I miss her and send money every month, but I’ll probably never see her again.”

Olisia felt a warmth in her chest. He was a son, separated from his mother—a mother her age. She could trust him.

“My name is Abai,” he said, helping her to her feet.

“Thank you, Abai,” she said, starting to walk away. But her balance was off, and he reached out to steady her. Abai asked permission to help her home.

Olisia smiled. “I’m a little shaky,” she said.

“I think it would be best if I held your elbow and put my arm around your waist. We want to keep you secure. Is that all right with you?”

“Yes, I don’t want to fall again.”

As they shuffled into the lobby, Kurt spied them. “Mrs. Z! Abai! What happened?”

Abai explained as they inched toward the elevator.

“Do you want me to help you to your apartment?”

“No, Abai will take care of me,” Olisia answered as they entered the elevator. “It’s the fourth floor.”
Susan Knox is the author of Financial Basics: A Money Management Guide for Students (Ohio State University Press 2004, 2nd edition, 2016). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Blue Lyra Review CALYX, Forge, Halfway Down the Stairs, The MacGuffin, Melusine, Monkey Puzzle, Zone 3 and elsewhere. In 2014, her essay, Autumn Life, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She and her husband live in Seattle.

© 2016, Susan Knox