In Linda Devon’s living room, at the women’s monthly gathering of twenty-one women friends—all of them 63 or older—some of the women were chatting, but Hannah Jacobsen was busy examining Linda Devon’s living room, hoping to find a bit of dust or grease or grime, maybe a stain on the drapery or carpet, maybe black hair from Linda’s dog (now banished to the back yard). Nothing. No dirt. No hair.
Each monthly meeting was held at a different woman’s house. Each hostess provided some game—maybe bridge or bingo or Jenga—or some other entertainment such as line dancing (simple steps) or chair yoga.
Hannah, sandwiched on a couch between Golda Walker and Jenny Thomas, waited with the others to hear what the entertainment of this month would be. Something stupid, Hannah thought. Last time they met at Linda’s house she had them making collages with construction paper, beads, (might as well have been macaroni) and clippings from magazines and catalogs. Ginger Reed got quite a burn from the hot glue gun.
Hannah scanned the room again and sighed. Linda’s house was spotless. There weren’t even any water spots on the teaspoons the women were using for their coffee.
Hannah looked at the ceiling breathed in deep and let the breath out. Not even a cobweb. But Linda never was that good at cleanliness. Had Linda had hired a housekeeper? That seemed like cheating.
When Hannah was hostess for the women’s group, she loved to show off her apartment. True, she had to bring folding chairs up from her storage locker, and she had to wipe them clean, but everything else was gleaming. But it was difficult to deal with the other women’s sloppiness. They meant well, of course, but most of them were careless. They forgot to use coasters for their drinks, their dirty shoes tracked soil across Hannah’s plush white carpet, and they always left couch pillows out of place, knick knacks disarranged, cookie crumbs on the upholstery and carpet, and dirty dishes and cups. Not that Hannah wanted any of them to clean up after themselves. They wouldn’t do it right. And, oh, the crowning irritation: not more than one in ten of the women remembered to fold the end of the toilet tissue to a tidy triangular point, as Hannah had—more than once—instructed them to do. Bunny had once sneered at Hannah and said, “You have too much time on your hands.” What did that have to do with anything? They didn’t understand.
Yes, she did have a lot of time on her hands. She had one grown son who lived in Turkey of all places. Her Turkey turkey. Some kind of oil or real estate business man. Single. No wife. No children.
Yes, she had a lot of time on her hands. Once your housework was caught up there was little to do. Dusting, vacuuming, washing windows, keeping up with the dishes she used—usually washed and back in the cupboard before the food had even settled in her stomach.
There was TV. She had her favorite shows. And she liked to watch the World of Poker programs.
And she crocheted and knitted. Endless afghans, scarves, sweaters, hats to give away to nursing homes and the Red Cross.
She liked getting together with her women friends. It was the highlight of her month.
Linda clinked her spoon against her tea cup then handed out narrow sheets of paper. Lists of things. Things?
“You’ll love it,” Linda said, “a scavenger hunt.”
Hannah stared at Linda. A scavenger hunt?
“But scavenger hunts are for little kids, or teenagers.” Alice Draper’s high, timid voice quavered.
“I never heard of anything so ridiculous,” said Bunny McGuire with her smug little smile that made Hannah want to slap her, though she never would.
Hannah agreed with Bunny about the scavenger hunt, though she was loath to admit it. She and Bunny were famous rivals at everything.
“Come on,” Linda said. “It will be fun.”
“Fun for you,” Alice said. “You don’t have to go out and do it.”
“I’ll fix you a wonderful treat for when you get back.”
Probably piles of hay, Hannah thought. Those awful bean sprouts she’d put in tuna sandwiches. Or she might serve bags of oats, the kind you’d feed to horses.
Hannah smiled a bit. True, she had not yet found any flaws in Linda’s housekeeping, but this was surely the most harebrained activity that anyone in their group had thought up in years. It was not the kind of mistake Hannah would have made. There was some satisfaction in that. The rest of the women would surely be raking this escapade over the memory coals for years to come. Hannah would be on the safe side of that argument.
“Come on now, Alice,” Linda was saying. “Doing young things keeps us young.”
“It does?” Alice replied. “The next thing you know you’ll have us out roller skating.”
“A scavenger hunt might be fun,” Bunny said.
Hannah wondered what Bunny was up to? It wasn’t like her to give in.
Amidst murmurs of protest and one more “you can’t be serious,” Linda handed out brown paper grocery sacks. “The first person to return with all the items wins.”
Hannah read down the list. A half-burned candle, a pull tab or a bottle cap, a burned-out flashlight battery, a button—For goodness sake! More then half of this stuff wouldn’t be in Hannah’s apartment—even in the garbage. A feather, a length of string, a can of peas—
“We’ll never find all these things.” Alice’s face was pinched with worry.
“My neighbors will help you,” Linda said patiently. “They’re all nice people. None of them will bite.” In response to Alice’s tight, frightened expression, Linda said gently. “It’s a safe neighborhood. I promise.”
“That’s what you think anyway,” Hannah folded her list. “I’m going to leave my purse here.”
Linda was picking up coffee cups. “That’s fine. No problem.”
“Is there a prize?” Bunny asked.
“Yes,” Linda grinned. “I thought no one would ask. The prize is a $20 gift certificate to Susan’s Tea Room.”
Waves of interest rippled through the room.
“Tell you what,” Bunny said to Hannah, “I’m going to win that prize. But I’ll make you a side bet: a buck says I beat you.”
Hannah met Bunny’s saucy gaze. “Beat me? As if you could.”
“You know I can. You know I will.”
“Okay. I’ll take you up on your bet.” Now Hannah found it interesting. Hannah and Bunny had competed at checkers, pinochle, bingo, monopoly, poker, Twister, charades—once even at badminton. “And I’ll wipe the floor with you,” Hannah purred.
“In your dreams.”
As Hannah prepared to leave, she took her coffee cup into the kitchen then went to make a precautionary bathroom stop. On her way back to the living room, she saw something which almost made her giggle with delight. On a small table in the hall a large arrangement of blue silk flowers was simply covered with dust.
The women’s cars were in the drive way and all along the street. Hannah had parked at the side of the street so she wouldn’t be closed in.
Hannah tucked her brown paper bag under her arm and went out to the street.
[She had been worried about Linda Devon: shiny tables, spotless upholstery, freshly cut flowers—roses, daisies, baby’s breath, sweet peas—in sparkling vases all about the room. (The yard and garden had been perfect, of course, but Hannah had discounted that. She happened to know that Linda had a hired yardman.) The fragrance of the flowers had blended pleasantly with the clean lemon scent of furniture polish and potpourri. The windows had been shining, streakless, clear; and the heavy beige draperies had hung pristine and perfect. The kitchen, too, had been spotless. But the dusty silk flowers sent Hannah happily on her quest.]
At the first house, an old woman who smelled of camphor gave Hannah the book of matches, the bottle cap, the aluminum can, and two eight-inch-or-longer pieces of string.
As she walked along the sidewalk, Hannah felt happy and fine: she was still the queen of the group.
[It’s not that the other women were bad housekeepers. Alice, for example, was perfectly adequate. Hannah had attended functions at all the women’s houses, but this had been her third visit to Linda Devon’s. Hannah had looked forward to a thorough scrutiny.
Linda Devon, sixty-four, was always impeccably groomed—her hair just as nicely coifed as Hannah’s, her manicure just as good—maybe even better, the polish shade just as unobtrusive as Hannah’s shade. Hanna had worried as soon as Linda joined the group.]
At the second house, a young man closed the door in Hannah’s face. What a rude little twit.
At the third house, a teenager said, “Cool,” and gave Hannah the empty cereal box, the four-inch-or-larger ball, and the dead battery.
Some wag had once suggested that Hannah get plastic covers for all her things, no. The challenge was to keep a normal place wonderfully clean. There was never a moment when Hannah would be ashamed of any of her cupboards. Hannah’s closets were open for inspection at any time. She felt confident that even a military sergeant would always walk away from her home with unsullied white gloves.
At the fourth house, a sweet-faced young woman gave Hannah not one but three stiff, brightly-colored pipe cleaners—one yellow, one red, one green. As she walked down the steps, Hannah wondered where she should go next. She looked around at the houses. There must be some system she could use.
Hannah spotted Bunny McGuire cutting quickly across the street at the far end of the block. She couldn’t be finished already. She mustn’t win. With relief, Hannah realized that—even though Bunny’s sack seemed to bulge—Bunny was headed not toward but away from Linda’s house.
Hannah had only a few more items to collect. She knew she could win.
She spotted Alice Draper sitting on the curb halfway down the block. Hannah went to her. Alice’s brown paper bag was still folded flat. “Aren’t you even going to try?” Hannah asked.
“No,” Alice said. “I hate this. It’s not the type of thing that nice, quiet, old ladies do.”
“The rest of us are doing it. Have you knocked on any doors at all? We’re not all that old.”
“I’m not going to knock on the doors of total strangers. I won’t do it. I couldn’t even do it when I was a Girl Scout. I got my dad to buy up all my cookies.”
“Ha! You should at least try. It’s no big deal.” Hannah had been annoyed with Alice ever since Alice had given up driving her car. Alice was perfectly capable. But now she always depended on someone else. Often Hannah. It just wasn’t right.
“No big deal for you,” Alice grumbled. “You never had children.”
“I have one son. But what has that got to do with the price of tea in China?”
“Children wear you out.”
“Okay. Listen. I was skeptical, too, but—“
Alice said, “Sometimes I just want to die. I think I should.”
“Stop that now,” said Hannah. “I’m not going to listen to this. You’re just depressed. You need to snap out of it.”
“I mean it.”
“Good lord. All the bad stuff comes along soon enough. You don’t have to hurry it along.”
“It’s already here.”
“You know,” Hannah said, “sometimes you need to rise to a challenge. It’s safe. This neighborhood—“
“I just don’t want to do it. I’ll sit here for twenty minutes then admit defeat.”
“Now you’re just being exasperating.” This was out of Hannah’s mouth before she realized she was going to say it. Hannah sighed, “Will you do it if I go with you?”
“Well,” Hannah said, handing her the red one, “here’s a pipe cleaner anyway. Take it. Then you won’t go back with nothing.”
“It’s not exactly honest.”
“Take the damned pipe cleaner.”
“All right,” Alice said as she reached up and took it. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Hannah put the other two pipe cleaners into her own sack, then she looked toward the houses. She thought again that there must be some system, some logical way to go about this. The eight-track tape, for example. There might be one at a house with a lot of music. Though eight-track tapes might as well be dinosaurs. Hannah listened but heard only bird songs, a far-away barking dog, and a distant lawn mower. Well then, the seed catalog. What about a house where the yard has beautiful flowers?
She was still upset with Alice, half thinking she should stay with her. But no. She would not give up the way Alice did.
As Hannah looked around, a small, yellow house caught her eye. The yard was a little shaggy—it needed a mow—and weeds grew between the flowers, but to the left of the entrance, there were bright red poppies and a white flower Hannah didn’t recognize. To the right of the entrance there was a trellis with green, glossy leaves and a mass of yellow roses. That might be a place to find a seed catalog.
As Hannah approached the house, she saw—in the side yard—birds flitting to birdhouses, a birdbath, several types of wooden feeders, and hanging clear cylinders filled with red hummingbird nectar. Hm. She might get the feather here, too.
Hannah rang the bell and, after a moment, the door opened slowly inward. A round-faced woman peeked out. She was maybe thirty years old, with slightly messy brown hair. “Yes?”
“Hi,” Hannah said. “I’m on a scavenger hunt. I wonder if you could help me. I only have a few more things I need to collect.”
“A scavenger hunt?” The woman opened the door wider, revealing a wrinkled muumuu above a pair of threadbare slippers. The muumuu was tented outward. The woman was fat. “What do you need?”
The house smelled of meat cooking, roast beef, perhaps. Hannah approved. It was good to know that everyone wasn’t eating tofu and bean sprouts. Hannah realized she was hungry, the cookies at Linda’s house hadn’t been filling. She hoped Linda Devon would serve some decent sandwiches when she got back. “Let’s see,” Hannah said, looking down at her list, “an eight-track tape, a seed catalog, an empty aspirin bottle, a feather, a can of peas, a paper clip, a partly burned candle, and a yellow button.”
The woman had moved forward to look at the list. She pointed at the words with a pudgy finger. She smelled sweet, like chocolate. “I think I have all those things. Come on in.”
Everything, Hannah thought. I’m going to win! What a pleasure it would be to take Bunny’s outstretched dollar. Once Hannah was inside, she followed as the woman said, “Please excuse my messy house.”
Hannah smiled. That’s what Hannah’s mother had always said before leading a person into their spotless living room. But as they rounded the corner from the entryway, Hannah’s smile faded. The place was messy. The TV was on, the Home and Garden channel. There were papers, dirty glasses, magazines open to pictures of houses, some rumpled blankets, a dirty bowl—
For goodness sake, Hannah thought. This woman could at least keep the place a little tidy. The woman seemed young enough. All this should be a snap for her. She could take the dirty dishes to the kitchen, tidy the papers, fold the blankets, dust—
On a sheet of newspapers, there were paint brushes and little strips of wood—maybe Popsicle sticks—painted red.
The woman led on to the kitchen, which was even worse. Dirty dishes, piles of papers, smudges on the cupboards. Some of the cupboards were open, revealing disorderly, over-crowded shelves.
“Would you like a brownie?” the woman asked, indicating a sheet-cake pan on a counter next to some dirty glasses. “They’re still warm.”
“No thank you.” Hannah thought: I wouldn’t want to eat anything in this place. Would there even be a clean knife to dislodge the brownie?
There was clutter everywhere, with the single exception of one island-type counter, which was mostly clean and clear. In the middle of that, there was a little half-built house—a birdhouse, Hannah realized—some very small boards, some tools, some tiny nails and a plastic bottle of carpenter’s glue.
“Feathers are no problem,” the woman said. “I have feathers all over my yard. A paper clip. I know I saw a paper clip somewhere. Where was it?” She opened a jumbled drawer and rummaged through it. No paper clip.
Hannah thought of her own spotless apartment, the polished Danish modern desk with the paperclip container on the left side of the top drawer.
“Well shoot!” the woman said. She thought for a moment then said, “But I know where– I think—” She turned away, opened a door, and started down some steps. Hannah followed, mostly out of curiosity.
The fat woman led Hannah through the basement, past dusty boxes and odd pieces of furniture, until they got to a corner where a washer and dryer sat. There were things—a box of books, magazines, a half-full laundry basket—stacked on the washing machine. The fat woman removed the things, opened her washing machine, and took out a large, black purse, which she rummaged through until she brought out a half-burned white taper. “I thought I had one,” she said with triumph. She handed the candle to Hannah then put her purse back into the washing machine, piling box, magazines and laundry basket back on top.
“Why do you keep your purse in the washing machine?”
The fat woman led the way back through and up from the basement. “Um. I have a brother. Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.”
“Why did you have a candle in your purse?”
“It was from the candlelight service on Christmas Eve.”
“But it’s July.”
“I don’t get out much.” The woman led Hannah back up the stairs to the kitchen. “What else is on your list? Oh, a paper clip. I know I saw one somewhere. Look over there.” She indicated a cluttered shelf of miscellaneous things. Hannah looked at the things on the shelf, but did not touch them. No, she didn’t see a paper clip.
“A yellow button,” the fat woman said. She turned quickly and stepped on something green—a lettuce leaf, or perhaps a bit of spinach. She sprawled forward, landing with a cracking sound, then she rolled onto her back saying, “Ow ow ow. My knee.”
“Oh dear,” Hannah said. “You landed pretty hard. Are you—“
“Oh. It hurts bad. Oh, oh!”
“Can you move it, do you think?”
The woman lifted her foot and lowered it. “Yes, but it hurts pretty bad.”
Hannah ran her fingers along the side of her own face. “I’m no good at this,” she said. “It’s been ages since I had a child to deal with, or any of that.”
“Ow. You didn’t? I never had a mother.”
Hannah didn’t want to know that. She did not respond.
“If I weren’t such a slob—” the woman said.
“Now now.” Hannah had to agree with her to a point, but it would do no good to worry about that now. “Do you want to try to get up?”
Hannah went to help the woman, who lifted herself up onto her elbows, then lay back saying, “Ouch ouch oh ow oh.”
“I’m calling 911,” Hannah decided out loud.
“I guess you’d better,” the fat woman said. “I’m such a stupid ass.”
“Oh now. Anybody can fall.” Hannah spotted the phone and crossed to it quickly. It had some dark, greasy-looking smudges on it, but Hannah was only repelled for a tenth of a second. She picked up the receiver, placed the call, asked the fat woman’s address, then reassured her that help was on the way. “Can I get you anything?” Hannah asked.
“No. I’m all right.”
“Do you need me to call anyone? Your husband?”
“No. I’m not married. I’m alone.”
Maybe if the EMTs arrived soon enough, Hannah could still win the scavenger hunt. Hannah noticed a shelf she hadn’t seen before. On it were several tidily arranged small structures. “What adorable bird houses. Do you make them?”
“Yes. I like doing that.”
“Do you sell them?”
“I’ve thought about it.”
“I’d buy one.” It would look so cute on her desk, or maybe on the bookshelf, or maybe on the her apartment’s small balcony, though she wouldn’t want any bird poop on it. Hannah stepped carefully toward the birdhouses, which were neat, highly detailed, nicely painted. One had a miniature bay window. Another had a pillared porch. A couple of them had what looked like little bricks, others had scaled down siding. Two of the birdhouses had roofs with tiny cedar shakes. “They’re charming. Really. Such detail. Do you design them yourself?”
“How clever. I haven’t done anything like this is years. Oh dear. What happened to this one?”
The fat woman sighed. “The broken one?”
“I have a brother.”
“He did this?”
“Well, see, he made my father angry.”
“Your father broke it?”
“No, no. My father’s dead. I got the house. And I have an annuity.”
Hannah understood. “Your father cut your brother out of the will.”
“Yes. But he feels entitled. He pesters me. Sometimes he hits me.”
“And he broke this house.”
“Yes. He threatened to break them all. He wanted money.”
“Did you give it to him?”
“You should get a restraining order.”
“I’ve thought about it.”
“Did your mother die, too?”
“No. She didn’t want us.”
“Oh now. Surely she wanted you.”
“She left when we were little. She never came back.”
The doorbell rang. Hannah frowned. It couldn’t be the EMTs this soon. “Do you want me to get the door?”
“Yes, but if it’s a big guy, don’t let him in.”
Hannah sighed as she went to the door. She was wondering: what have I gotten myself into? She looked through the peephole then opened the door. “Why Alice—“
Alice tried to peer around the door. “Are you all right? You’ve been in here a long time. I was getting worried.”
Hannah felt a rush of tenderness toward Alice. It was sweet of her to come to Hannah’s rescue, especially since Alice took so few risks. “Everything’s all right. Well, sort of. The lady who lives her has had an accident. Come on in.” She led Alice into the kitchen and said, “This is my friend, Alice. I don’t know your name,”
“June,” the fat woman said. “Just plain June.”
“June’s a lovely name,” Hannah said. “Makes me think of spring. Um. Early spring.”
“You poor dear,” Alice said, then to Hannah, “Maybe we should get some ice.”
“Do you think so?” Hannah asked
“I don’t think ice would hurt.”
Hannah went to the refrigerator’s freezer and got out some ice, then she found a plastic bag. Alice crouched next to June, holding the ice bag on June’s knee. “Thank you,” June said. “That feels good.”
“Poor dear,” Alice said. “You know, most accidents occur in the home.”
Hannah wondered: where in the hell are the paramedics? The clutter on the counters was driving Hannah crazy. “Do you mind if I help you tidy up a little? You seem to have gotten behind.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I know. But it’s something I can do. I’d like to help.”
“Thank you,” June said with a half-hearted laugh. “I’ve been waiting for years to get help.”
Hannah found some bleach and a rag and she cleaned out the sink then started pre-rinsing dishes. Bunny had, no doubt, won the scavenger hunt. Well, she’d just have to wait to gloat over her dollar bill. Where were the EMTs? It’s a good thing June didn’t have a heart attack. But she wouldn’t. She’s still a young woman.
Hannah found a dishpan and drainer, washed them out, then began filling the dishpan with hot soapy water. She remembered the crushing pain, calling 911 for herself, unlocking her apartment door for the EMTs, making sure—from the stretcher—that the EMTs locked her door as they all left. She spent two days in the hospital without visitors or flowers (she could have called her friends, but why?) the lonely taxi ride home from the hospital, clutching her small bottle of tiny terrifying pills, cleaning up the mess in her apartment when she got home. Now she rinsed a blue cup then looked toward June and Alice. “Do you remember your mother at all?” Hannah asked.
“Sure I do. She had brown eyes. She used to brush my hair.”
Hannah imagined brushing June’s hair. How could a woman walk away from two young children? It was a disgrace. If Hannah had had more children– “Was your hair long when she brushed it?”
“Long enough for braids,” June replied.
They heard a siren and soon the EMTs were in the kitchen, asking questions, checking June’s vital signs.
Hannah realized that she and Alice could leave now, but it didn’t seem quite polite. She noticed the pan of brownies and her stomach growled. Well, maybe she could just take a little taste. She lifted a corner of cookie from the pan and nibbled at it. The full chocolate flavor filled her mouth. Delicious! She picked up the rest of the cookie and ate it. Yum. She wanted the recipe.
The EMTs were finishing up. They said that the injury was not too serious. Still, they wanted to transport June to the hospital, get x-rays.
“Would you like me to go to the hospital with you?” Hannah offered.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I know. But it’s so awful to go through these things alone.”
“Well–that would be nice. Thank you.”
“Sure. You bet.”
Hannah sent Alice to Linda Devon’s to get Hannah’s purse and car. Alice would meet them later at the hospital.
“I’ll need my purse, too,” June said.
“I’ll get it for you.”
Hannah emerged from the basement with June’s purse to hear the EMTs saying, yes, of course, Hannah was welcome to ride along.