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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

“The Tuesday Stack”

Published: October 24, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

It occurred to me, as I straightened the stack of Tuesday newspapers, that Tuesdays are boring days. They lack the hardship of Mondays, the ‘over the hump’ feeling of Wednesdays, the anticipation of Thursdays, the eagerness of Fridays, the thrill of Saturdays, and the ease of Sundays. Yes, Tuesdays are boring days.

It seemed that the more I straightened the stack the more precarious it became. All piled up on the orange shag rug, the stack leaned over to one side like a tired looking tree. I briefly considered removing a few editions to recycle, but I knew that Albert would be in such a tiff if he found out that any of his Tuesday editions were missing. Albert was very particular about his stacks of newspaper.

So I moved on to the next pile, which teetered next to the plastic covered couch. The plastic-covered couch, what a despicable invention. The cushions were still decaying beneath their pristine covers. It always made me a little sad to look at. I had never seen anyone sit on that couch and could not imagine why anyone would want to. Despite all the effort that had gone into preserving it, the fabric couldn’t help aging.

Behind me I heard Albert shuffling down the hall. He was headed for his old mustard colored chair. Unlike the couch, there had been no effort to preserve this dilapidated excuse for furniture. Its corduroy cover was more holes and stuffing than corduroy, but it did look comfortable. The chair, like Albert, smelt of stale pipe tobacco. Although, strangely, I never once saw him smoke. The seam, which clung stubbornly to the crumbling fabric, must have been trapped there from before I had come to work in the tiny apartment.

The story of how I ended up there is a rather boring tale, which started on a rather boring Tuesday. There was a small ad in the classified section of the paper that morning, requesting someone to help care for an elderly couple. I called the phone number and less than five minutes later I had been offered $15 an hour. Everyday I tidied up the apartment, fixed meals, administered a few pills and stayed out of the spare room at the end of the hall. “It’s off limits.” Those were my only instructions and I was happy to oblige. (The hall smelled ranker than Albert’s chair, so any excuse to avoid it was welcome.) The demands were simple, the pay was good, and Albert’s crotchety disposition was made bearable by his lovely wife Eleanor.

I never understood how she ended up with him. I could tell from the smudged photographs that hung on the walls that she had once been a very beautiful woman.

“Bone structure like Ingrid Bergman, that’s what I was told once. Bone structure like Ingrid Bergman…” Her once bright green eyes, now foggy from cataracts, glistened ever so slightly when she recalled that tiny compliment. “It’s funny how the smallest comment can stay with you through all these long years…”

Before her eyesight had deteriorated and before her hands had started to rattle she had been a painter. A true Artist.

I came across some of her paintings one day while cleaning. She painted portraits, reveling, haunting portraits of young women. There must have been a dozen or so of them. Each face smiled up from with in an ornate frame, but there was pain and longing in their eyes, as if they were trapped inside their frames longing to break free and experience life beyond the canvas. Staring in to their imprisoned eyes I understood their plight. I too dreamt of breaking free, free of Albert’s judgmental stare and this boring dead-end job. But I needed the money, so each morning I climbed the stairs to their third story walk up and faced another day with the newspapers and plastic-covered couch.

I could sense that Eleanor too was trapped, trapped between yellowing walls and easels she could no longer use. Her prison cell had been locked nearly 50 years ago when she married Albert. “I was old for a bride, nearly thirty. But it was a beautiful day, the day Albert and I got married, a beautiful June day.” That was the only time she had ever spoken directly about Albert. Usually she avoided having to use his name.

“The paper. And my tea!” Albert barked at me once he had finally settled into his chair. I was used to his abrupt manner and now it was just part of our routine, like some timeless play we performed every day. He demanded, I fetched, he grumbled, I slipped away to spend time with Eleanor. Each day was the same. Except for this one, boring Tuesday. That morning something happened, something that was not written in to our carefully rehearsed script.

As I gingerly placed Albert’s steaming mug on his rickety side table, Eleanor ambled into the room.

This slight change in our routine went unnoticed by Albert who settled back into his chair and opened Tuesday’s newspaper.

I, however, was unnerved by the sudden appearance. Eleanor never came into the living room before noon. “It’s too dark in there for mornings,” she would say.

“Eleanor, are you ok? Can I get you something?”

I tried to hide the concern in my voice, but I was uneasy.

“Oh, darling, don’t mind me. I’m just a little chilly this morning. That’s all. I think I might sit in here for a little while. Try to get warm again.” Here eyes seemed a little cloudier than usual and her breaths were a little shallow. “Here, I’ll just rest on the couch for a few moments.” I helped her lean back on the crunchy plastic. It was strange to see someone sitting on the oversized furniture. It made the fabric seem older and more frayed.

“Eleanor, you are looking very pale. Are you sure you’re feeling fine? I mean, can I get you a drink of water or something to eat?”

“No I’m really fine dear.” She gently swatted her hand in the air to dismiss my concern and her eyes drooped close.

“Have I ever told you the story of how I got my paints? I truly love those paints. I keep them under my bed you know. In a little tin, with the colors all lined up, like a rainbow. Red next to orange, next to yellow, next to green next to… I still remember the day he gave them to me. It was raining out and Mother was hunched over in the corner crying. It was the day he headed off to the war in Europe.

“My big brother was all dressed up in his uniform and he handed me the tin wrapped up in brown paper. My mother was crying, but I was glowing. They were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. ‘I’ll make you a painting everyday.’

“He smiled at me and said, ‘I would love that doll-face.’ I loved it when he called me ‘doll-face.’ It made me feel like a move star, glamorous and talented. That was the kind of guy my brother was, always making other people feel good about themselves.

“Then right before he was going to leave he gave me a big strong hug and whispered in my ear. ‘Take care of them for me.’

“I finished my first painting the day the soldiers knocked on our front door. Mother wailed and screamed and sank down to the floor, and Father just stared at the wall. For a month straight, he wouldn’t budge. Mother refused to let us clean out his bedroom. And every evening she would sit in the dark hunched over in his preserved room looking out the tiny window.

“It was as if she was waiting for him to come home, refusing to believe he was gone.

“She died a year later. Everyone said it was a broken heart, but I knew the truth. She died because she couldn’t see the point of living anymore. She didn’t have any good reason to keep going if she wasn’t my brother’s mother any more. It was as if her purpose in this life had been stolen away and no matter how hard she tried to pretend, there was no getting him back. She just wasted away… And my father… well, he never smiled again, not that he smiled much to begin with. That summer’s when I got my first job. I was almost thirty, when Father died too. That’s when I met Albert, you know. He owned the funeral parlor that came for Father. Somehow up until then I had just forgotten to get myself a husband. So Albert and I got married.

“It was in June. I didn’t have a veil. Albert said they were frivolous. I was old for a bride, too old for a bride, but it was a beautiful day, the day Albert and I got married, a beautiful June day.”

Suddenly, her eyes flew open and her boney hand grasped my wrist. In a desperate voice she begged me, “Take my paints dear. I want you to have my paints. Please they can’t just rot away under my bed. Please. They are the only thing I have that’s mine to give away and, …and I want you to have them. Promise me doll-face, Promise me you’ll take care of them.”

“I promise,” I whispered in her ear as if it was a secret kept just between the two of us. I felt her hand go limp around my wrist. She relaxed leaning back on to the plastic-covered couch. A dreamy smile slid across her lips and her eyelids glided close. Her breath was now so shallow I could barely hear its raspy cadence. Then it quietly stopped.

A tear escaped my eye and dribbled down my cheek and under my chin. I didn’t move to wipe it away, as if wiping away the tear would wipe the memory of Eleanor out of my mind. I kept my eyes glued to her serene smiling face. I was trying to hold on to her image afraid I would forget it the moment I looked away.

“Albert..?” I whispered a little tentatively, I was afraid to interrupt his reading. “Albert? I think we need to call an Ambulance or something Eleanor is …” The word got lost somewhere between my mind and my mouth. I was going to say Eleanor is sleeping but I knew that wasn’t true. The thought sent a wave of grief through my body. I suddenly realized that I had cared more for the woman laying in front of me than I had for any other person in my nearly three decades of life. I tried again to explain to Albert that his wife was dead… but my jaw just hung open stupidly.

Albert slowly peered around the edge of his paper and grumpily sighed. “Ugg.. You’re going to have to put her in with the others.” And he went back to reading his paper.

“The Others…?”

He gruffly crumpled the paper up and stuffed in between his leg and the decaying arm of his chair. “Yes Eleanor, with the others… in the spare room.”

“Eleanor…? But I’m not … the spare room? I’m not supposed to go in there…”

“Eleanor, stop dillydallying. And put her in with the others.”

Bewildered I rose from the couch and walked in a daze down the narrow hallway. When I came to the door at the end of the hall I hesitated for a moment before I boldly reached out, turned the knob, pushed gently and watched as the door creaked open.

Even before my eyes had adjusted to the odd light, a sick sour smell wafted towards my nostrils. Inside, in seven neat stacks were the partially decaying bodies of a few dozen women.

The faces staring back at me looked vaguely familiar, but where had I seen them before? Then I remembered the paintings. Before me were the faces of Eleanor’s portraits.

My heart was thudding in my ears and my breath was stuck in the bottom of my lungs. Right over my shoulder, I heard Albert’s ornery voice, “Tuesday, yes Tuesday. She will have to go on top of the Tuesday pile. Third from the left. There. Eleanor just place her on top of that pile, there.”

I stared blankly past Albert’s bald liver spotted head. In the hallway mirror I had caught a glimpse of my own appearance… but it couldn’t be…

I was staring at the reflection of Eleanor’s wrinkled face.

“Now Eleanor, when you’re done you can finish that painting you were working on. Do you remember where you put your paints…?”

“My paints…?” I tried hard to hold on to a thought, but they were all flying past me too quickly to catch one.

“My paints… Yes. My paints. They are under the bed?”

Albert slowly nodded his ugly spotted head “Yes, under the bed… under your bed.”

I started to mimic the motion of his head, back and forth, back and forth. “Yes under the bed. My bed.”

As he turned to hobble back into the living room I heard him mutter under his breath, “I’ll have to put another ad in the paper. Maybe I can still get it in to the Wednesday edition…”