Old things creak, Erma thought wistfully as she pressed a rough hand down onto the knotty surface of the tatted doily sitting over the threadbare arm of her couch. The low, soft sofa seemed somehow even lower this morning as she tried to leverage her frail body up from it. It had been her mother's long ago, and although the springs were failing and the cushions oversoft from long use, she hadn't the heart to replace it. The crackle of protesting joints hardly bothered her anymore; they had been a familiar sound for decades. Even so, lately she often caught herself thinking bitterly of her mutinous bones and of her errant youth on Tuesdays. On Tuesdays youth stopped in for a visit.
The thought of youth always brought to Erma's mind the photo album that sat beneath the end table beside the couch. Every Tuesday this year she had remembered the album, but it had been many years since her now wrinkled hands had touched it. The album would never be seen by the eyes for which it was intended, and had never been. She absently thought it probably could use a dusting.
The incessant dull rhythm of car engines on the street outside continued unabated, punctuated by the occasional thunderous percussion of a truck or the shrill tympani of a car horn, but over this cacophony, Erma had heard familiar footsteps coming up the stairs inside her apartment building. The happy footfalls echoed in hollow wood as her visitor approached-twelve, thirteen, fourteen steps-her guest was now on the second floor and clomping up the hall. Moving more smoothly now that she had beaten gravity and evaded the doldrums-comfort of the too-soft sofa, she ambled toward the door, consciously ignoring the protests of stiff joints. By the time a small knock sounded just above the cold metal doorknob, she was there to remove the rusty chain and turn the anvil-shaped bolt with knobby arthritic fingers which now felt too large for her dainty wrists. She twisted the rickety old handle, which turned with a loose and uneven squeak, and admitted her young caller.
At twelve, Kaliq had more charm than most men Erma had ever known. As she stood behind the open door, oversized feet padded into her quiet apartment, and she rebolted the door. The old knob had not held the door shut in years and she was on her second bolt since then, a pompously cheerful button-and-handle affair that just made the rest of the heavy door feel even older than it was. They exchanged comfortable greetings before Erma turned and led the way to the kitchen, the exuberant sound of sneakers on hardwood behind her eliciting a rare grin. Something about the happy footfalls of youth was itself a tonic, she thought. This morning they would have breakfast. Some Tuesdays it was lunch, or just a small snack, but today Erma had a special breakfast in mind. It had always been a treat when her mother had cooked this, and now she would share the treat with her young visitor. She took the heavy cast iron griddle from the cabinet with two hands while behind her a loud click, magnified by the acoustic kitchen floor, resounded as Kaliq turned on the kitchen light.
At her insistence, Kaliq regaled her with his latest adventures, jumping from subject to subject while she concocted her batter beating eggs in an old ceramic bowl. He inhaled his appreciation as she dusted cinnamon from an oddly bent tin, then continued his report. Math was awful. Science was very hard, but Mrs. Stuart was nice, so he didn't mind as much. As he rattled on, she sniffed another tin and added something from it to the mix before soaking slices of bread in it. He went on almost without breathing as she flipped the battered bread on the pan with her tong-like double spatula. Mother was very busy, but she had taken him shopping to buy the "phat" new sneakers he was wearing today. Hearing him pause to sniff tentatively at the cap he had opened inside the refrigerator door whose chilly breath she felt at her ankles, she amusedly assured him without turning that the milk was fresh-she had bought it on Sunday. She served their breakfast on plates taken from the top shelf of the cupboard beside the stove. They had been her mother's and she rarely used them.
"These are different plates," Kaliq noted, his delightful innocence omitting to assign any significance to the choice.
As they sat down to eat, she noted that it must be after ten. The traffic noises had quieted into a soft background music now that the morning march had climaxed and faded. Kaliq paused between smacking mouthfuls of sweet fried bread to ask boundless questions no one before him had ever cared to ask. "Why do you collect those little statues," he wondered, and "where did you learn to cook such wonderful things?" The barrage of questions continued as they finished their meal. How did she know so much about everything? What was the photo album under the table? Shouldn't she have a dog instead of a cat? His curiosity almost outweighed his interest in his breakfast.
Back in the kitchen, she patiently answered his questions while he helped to wash dishes, the water swishing sloppily as he made soft, scratching sounds scrubbing plates. She resisted the urge to cringe as he seemed to rather boisterously handle the ancient china. Listening to herself speak, she marveled at the deep croak her voice had become with age. Funny, she thought, how time can make an alto a bass, and a china dish an antique.
She had been given her first statuette-a miniature replica of The Embrace-by her mother, and had enjoyed its contours and edges so much that she had started collecting sculptures whenever she could. Eventually she had begun her own sculpting, and many of the pieces Kaliq most admired were borne of her hands. She had owned that first Rodin since long before Kaliq's parents had been born. It still inspired her, she explained, by its jagged shape so warm and human, and yet so abrupt and affected. As they made their way back into the parlor, she invited him to feel the small artwork himself, assuring him he wouldn't break it with a little touch. She went on answering his endless questions.
She had learned to cook in school many years prior; she prided herself on the artistry of her cooking, which she felt manifested itself in the act. She used no set recipe, but cooked by her moods and varied the tastes of the same dishes often. In a significant tone of one who imparts a great secret, she informed him that he had just consumed Version Number Three of French toast, the one with a touch of nutmeg.
Erma had no need of a dog. She had been too independent for too many years to allow such a love-starved animal to invade her space. Erma had not met many people she craved company of, and dogs, she told him, were like people with no restraint. Five, her cat, was simply called by his order of arrival in her life. His four predecessors had been fine company, but Five was the best of all of them. She had his constant companionship-he had never been outside-but avoided the trouble of an affectionate animal. Five never bothered her except when she wanted to be bothered. As they dried the last of the dishes and Erma opened the cupboards in which they belonged, Five mewled loudly from the floor beside the stove, as if he knew he was being discussed.
Trudging back to the living room, she assured Kaliq that she did not know "so much"-however much that was-and that she knew absolutely nothing about everything and preferred it that way. She only knew what she knew today, she told him sagely, and cautioned him against ever thinking he or anyone else knew enough. He asked again about the album.
He asked again. For longer than he had lived, the album had been sitting somewhere about that table, waiting. It had been so long since she had even held it that she scarce remembered the soft, luxuriant feel of its satin-covered binding. Telling him quite simply that it was personal, she dismissed the matter, but it lingered on her mind as she absently moved the rocker to its proper place an inch closer to the wall-it must have moved last night when she had rocked while listening to a CD of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Wonderful things, CDs, she thought. She still had the records she had collected over the years, but they had been consigned to the extra bedroom after a neighbor had introduced her to compact discs. There were no scratches, no skips, nor even the slightest crackle. She could sit back and imagine the London Philharmonic was right there playing for her alone. Still, she held a nostalgic, warm spot she would never admit for those crackling old records that played as her mother went through the album with her as a girl.
The scent of the perfumed satin came unbidden to her mind though it had faded from the album decades ago. She knew by heart what it contained, what each page might have shown children and grand-children of their heritage, of Erma. Her mother had begun the album before she was born with that dream, yet nearly a century hence there was no one to appreciate the lives hidden within its pages. There would be no children, no grand-children. There was only Erma.
The grinding sound of Kaliq moving her statue, Alone, on the wooden table broke into her ruminations, and she silently scolded herself for indulging in nonsensical self-pity. When she asked him why he liked Alone and he replied that it seemed so sad it made him happy, she understood, and it briefly warmed the calculated cold within her that he understood too. She let another rare smile escape her lips.
Abruptly she moved to the writing desk near the door, working out the stiffness of belligerent joints with each step, and announced that today they would take a walk in the park. From the single drawer in the desk she produced a thin bundle of plastic sticks, and unfolded it into a long, thin cane with one practiced snap of her brittle wrist. For the first time, her young friend disagreed with her, protesting "you don't need that today-you have me."
"So I do," she agreed with a smile that felt both unfamiliar and rapturous as it cracked her mask. She folded the retractable cane and replaced it, and as they made their way down the fourteen steps arm in arm, she began to tell him of the gift she had for him, of the photo album she had never seen.